Sometimes a product comes along that is so poorly made, so awkwardly packaged, so undermarketed, so bereft of features and so technologically backward that the initial reaction of most customers is: “Give me two.” It highlights our still-uneasy relationship with technology.
Ten years ago, Nebraska-born musician Christiaan Virant was eking out a living in Beijing performing drone-like ambient music with his Chinese collaborator Zhang Jian, under the name FM3; as pioneers of the electronic movement in China, most of their money came from sound installations at art galleries, which entailed wiring up rooms with sound equipment. Mulling a simpler and cheaper way of doing this, Virant was wandering around a Buddhist temple in southwest China when he spotted a little plastic box on the altar, piping out loops of the tinny, digitized chants played endlessly at such places. Intrigued, he found two of the devices in the
temple gift shop and bought both. The idea of an instant sound installation was born.
Minimum machine: The lack of multiple options makes the Buddha Machine even more appealing
The really important realization took a lot longer. Such chant boxes are commonplace around Asia, but Virant found that they were mostly produced only in volumes of 2,00,000 or more. It took him a year to persuade a factory in a village near Jinjiang in Fujian province to make them in the quantity he wanted: 300. “We thought that would last a lifetime,” he recalls. In reality, they sold out in a few weeks.
The first hint that the two musicians might need more was when, over dinner in Beijing, Virant showed an early prototype to legendary ambient composer Brian Eno, who was in China researching local music. The device was as basic as you can get—rough plastic edges that didn’t fit snugly, a sound so tinny you could hear the hiss, only nine ambient sounds, none lasting longer than 40 seconds—but Eno, the legend, loved it. He bought eight of them.
Others followed suit. On tour in Berlin, the members of FM3 visited their German record company to see metre-high piles of Buddha Machines waiting to be shipped after popular trend-spotting website Boing Boing had mentioned it. Last year, they sold 30,000, for about $23 (about Rs940) each (from www.fm3buddhamachine.com3). “It spiralled out of control,” says Virant.
For many, it probably wasn’t more than a cute piece of kitsch. Its rudimentary packaging—FM3 didn’t have time to design any special box, so they went with the clichéd Chinese design the factories used for their more usual fare—brightly coloured plastic and minimal knobs all appealed to the trendy crowd. But that isn’t the whole story.
For Eno, the device was an instrument in itself. And he wasn’t the only one. Virant says he’s received hundreds of songs where musicians have used the Buddha Machine’s sounds as the starting point. About 80% of customers have bought more than one, either giving them to friends or dotting them around their homes and creating a soft wall of sound. Inspired, FM3 started using them as instruments in their own concerts. Non-musicians found they liked playing them to their pet animals. They also helped put kids to sleep.
But there’s something else at play here. FM3, operating in China, away from the early years of the iPod craze, had no idea that the device would inspire a mini-backlash among those who would eschew the iPod’s sleek surfaces and rounded edges for the Buddha Machine’s cheap plastic and ill-fitting parts, and the iPod’s emphasis on sound quality and abundance of choice for a tinny speaker and nine hard-wired tracks.
Virant is careful not to claim any credit for this. But I think we could tentatively draw some lessons. For starters, we tend to design products to fit a specific niche, only to find that they are often used for something else. FM3 designed the device as a way to get around wiring up art galleries. But that isn’t what they, or their customers, finally ended up using it for.
It also shows that products don’t need to be complex. The lack of options in the Buddha Machine is part of its appeal. There is a part of us, the device seems to say, that yearns for simplicity, and for some choices to be made on our behalf. We don’t want everything to have endless menus and options. We don’t always want to be offered an endless array of choices, and to have complex, sophisticated sounds fill every waking moment.
In a world of networked devices, too, the Buddha Machine stands alone, defiantly lacking a USB port, Bluetooth chip or Wi-Fi card. “People love the idea of something that you can just turn on,” says Virant.
I’m not suggesting we ditch all our sophisticated gadgets. I’m not suggesting the iPod is a bad thing. I’m not suggesting you all go out and listen to droning ambient music. But if nothing else, the quiet success of the Buddha Machine suggests that there is room in our well-tooled, digital lives for something that is defiantly rough around the edges. “As humans we have our quirks,” is how Virant puts it. “The Buddha Machine has a human quality.”
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