July 4, 2020, 5:19

    The Walkman, Forty Years On

    The Walkman, Forty Years On

    Even prior to extended quarantines, lockdowns, and self-isolation, it was hard to imagine life without the electronic escapes of noise-cancelling earbuds, smartphones, and tablets. Today, it seems impossible. Of course, there was most certainly a before and after, a point around which the cultural gravity of our plugged-in-yet-tuned-out modern lives shifted. Its name is Walkman, and it was invented, in Japan, in 1979. After the Walkman arrived on American shores, in June of 1980, under the temporary name of Soundabout, our days would never be the same.

    Up to this point, music was primarily a shared experience: families huddling around furniture-sized Philcos; teens blasting tunes from automobiles or sock-hopping to transistor radios; the bar-room juke; break-dancers popping and locking to the sonic backdrop of a boom box. After the Walkman, music could be silence to all but the listener, cocooned within a personal soundscape, which spooled on analog cassette tape. The effect was shocking even to its creators. “Everyone knows what headphones sound like today,” the late Sony designer Yasuo Kuroki wrote in a Japanese-language memoir, from 1990. “But at the time, you couldn’t even imagine it, and then suddenly Beethoven’s Fifth is hammering between your ears.”

    The initial incarnation of the Walkman, the TPS-L2, was envisioned as a toy for Japanese high-school and college students to use as they studied. (Sharp-eyed fans will recognize the distinctive silver and blue TPS-L2 as the model carried by Peter Quill in Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” films.) Sony’s chairman at the time, the genial Akio Morita, was so unsure of the device’s prospects that he ordered a manufacturing run of only thirty thousand, a drop in the bucket compared to such established lines as Trinitron televisions. Initially, he seemed right to be cautious. The Walkman débuted in Japan to near silence. But word quickly spread among the youth of Tokyo about a strange new device that let you carry a soundtrack out of your bedroom, onto commuter trains, and into city streets. Within a year and a half of the appearance of the Walkman, Sony would produce and sell two million of them.

    While the Walkman was far smaller and lighter than any tape deck that had come before, it remained stubbornly large. The technology of the day precluded Sony’s engineers, who were renowned as wizards of miniaturization, from whittling their portable stereo down to anything smaller than the size of a paperback book. Oversized for a pocket, the Walkman obligated the user to carry it by hand or sling it in an included belt holster. Even stranger, by current portable-listening standards, were the Walkman’s headphone ports—plural—and a built-in microphone. The Walkman was initially designed to be used in tandem: a “hot line” button paused the music and activated the mic, letting two users chat even with headphones on. This specification had come at the insistence of Morita, who had irritated his wife by not being able to conduct a conversation while testing early prototypes at home.

    The canny Morita, the architect of Sony’s sleek image both inside Japan and abroad, was right to fear the isolating nature of the Walkman. What he was wrong about was how, for the Walkman’s growing numbers of users, isolation was the whole point. “With the advent of the Sony Walkman came the end of meeting people,” Susan Blond, a vice-president at CBS Records, told the Washington Post in 1981. “It’s like a drug: You put the Walkman on and you blot out the rest of the world.” It didn’t take long for academics to coin a term for the phenomenon. The musicologist Shuhei Hosokawa called it “the Walkman effect.”

    Hosokawa noted how listeners used the devices to tame the unpredictability of urban spaces, with all of their unexpected intrusions and loud noises. Wearing headphones functioned both as a personal “Do Not Disturb” sign and an alternate soundtrack to the cacophony of the city. This was a new form of human experience, engaged disengagement, a technological shield from the world and an antidote to ennui. Whenever nerves frayed or boredom crept in, one could just hit Play and fast-forward life a little. One of the first Westerners to grasp the import of this new human capacity was the author William Gibson, a pioneer of the genre of science fiction called cyberpunk, who wrote years later that “the Sony Walkman has done more to change human perception than any virtual reality gadget.”

    The Walkman instantly entrenched itself in daily life as a convenient personal music-delivery device; within a few years of its global launch, it emerged as a status symbol and fashion statement in and of itself. “We just got back from Paris and everybody’s wearing them,” Andy Warhol enthused to the Post. Boutiques like Bloomingdale’s had months-long waiting lists of eager customers. Paul Simon ostentatiously wore his onstage at the 1981 Grammys; by Christmas, they were de-rigueur celebrity gifts, with leading lights like Donna Summer dispensing them by the dozens. There had been popular electronic gadgets before, such as the pocket-sized transistor radios of the fifties, sixties, and seventies. But the Walkman was in another league. Until this point, earphones had been associated with hearing impairment, geeky technicians manning sonar stations, or basement-dwelling hi-fi fanatics. Somehow, a Japanese company had made the high-tech headgear cool.

    Steve Jobs, then the young C.E.O. of a fledgling Silicon Valley startup called Apple Computer, had personally received a Walkman from Morita on a business trip to Japan, where Jobs went in search of disk-drive suppliers in the early nineteen-eighties. When Jobs returned home, he didn’t even bother listening to a cassette on the Walkman; instead, he opened and dissected the machinery piece by piece, reading tiny gears, drive belts, and capstans like tea leaves, to divine how he might, someday, make something so epically world-changing himself. “Steve’s point of reference was Sony at the time,” his successor at Apple, John Sculley, recalled. “He really wanted to be Sony. He didn’t want to be IBM. He didn’t want to be Microsoft. He wanted to be Sony.”

    Jobs would get his wish with the début of the iPod, in 2001. It wasn’t the first digital-music player—a South Korean firm had introduced one back in 1998. (That Sony failed to exploit the niche, in spite of having created listening-on-the-go and even owning its own record label, was a testament to how Morita’s unexpected retirement after a stroke, in 1993, hobbled the corporation.) But Apple’s was the most stylish to date, bereft of the complicated and button-festooned interfaces of its competitors, finished in sleek pearlescent plastic and with a satisfying heft that hinted at powerful technologies churning inside. Apple also introduced a tantalizing new method of serving up music: the shuffle, which let listeners remix entire musical libraries into never-ending audio backdrops for their lives. Once again, city streets were the proving ground for this evolution of portable listening technology. “I was on Madison [Ave],” Jobs told Newsweek, in 2004, “and it was, like, on every block, there was someone with white headphones, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, it’s starting to happen.’ ”

    That happening never really stopped, even after the advent, in 2007, of the iPhone—a direct descendant of the iPod and Walkman—made stand-alone portable music players obsolete. The iPhone added the intraocular drip of always accessible Internet, a new way of escaping the cacophonies that surround us. But the headphones were here to stay. iPod sales have dwindled to the point that Apple stopped reporting them in 2014, but, that very same year, the company purchased the headphones company Beats by Dre for more than three billion dollars. At the time, this marked the single biggest acquisition in Apple’s history—proof of Sony’s prescience in discovering and stoking an incandescent hunger for auditory escapes in our daily lives. The Walkman wasn’t the end of meeting people, but it paved the way for surviving an unthinkable era in which we would find ourselves unable to meet at all.

    Sourse: newyorker.com

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