On 30 Years of Soundtracks to Life

Over at the BBC, a teenager named Scott compares an iPod to a Sony Walkman (read it here). Scott is amused more than baffled by this obsolete technology, although it takes him a while to realize that a cassette tape can be flipped over.

On July 1, the Sony Walkman will be 30 years old. It’s hard to imagine what urban life was before the Walkman. Sony first introduced portable transistor radios in 1957 and these proliferated rapidly. With an earphone (like this), it was possible to carry music around on the go, but both sources and quality were limited. Portable cassette players and boomboxes flourished in the 1970s and if the latter served as means of building impromptu communities, they were also consciously thought of as sonic assault devices, marking out territory and creating tension in urban spaces. The Walkman was a counter against this, turning music inward toward a solitary experience (although not entirely: as Scott points out, Walkmen often had two jacks, making them less solitary than iPods). If the boombox represents the last moment of urban decay and street violence, the Walkman represents its re-colonization. This would be recapitulated in 2001 when the iPod turned out to be the first major consumer product introduced after 9/11.   

A brief hunt for information about the Walkman’s history revealed that an engineer named Andreas Pavel invented the first personal audio device. I can’t fathom what all of the jacks on the stereobelt do, but it certainly looks very cool. Plus, the stereobelt had numerous innovative features. First, whereas the Walkman simply reproduced sound as if it was a miniature tape deck for a stereo that you plugged headphones in, the patent (which was filed in 1983, after the Walkman’s introduction, but is an extension of earlier patents) indicates that the stereobelt was designed to play binaural recordings. Moreover, the Walkman was intended for mass consumption. It’s true, that mix tapes were a step down the road to networked publics, but in itself a Walkman couldn’t produce them. In contrast, the microphones on the stereobelt allowed users to not only take notes but to partake in what Pavel called "life recording (sound hunting)." 


Curiously, the Walkman was a product of jet-set life. The founder of Sony, Masuru Ibuka, asked for a portable music player for plane trips, thus spurring the device’s development.  

What strikes me about the history of the Walkman is how different technology is now: iPods are 8 years old and already by the time of their introduction, CD players, flash-based MP3, and minidisc players had supplanted Walkmen. Technologies, such as the Walkman, that once seemed ubiquitous now have a run of less than a decade before disappearing or transforming utterly. And yet, historians and theorists use operative models largely developed within the days of the Walkman or—thinking of the continued popularity of the Situationists or Deleuze—in the days of the transistor radio.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could develop frameworks to explain our world as rapidly as we could develop such technologies? 

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