The Walkman

In the New Yorker magazine, Matt Alt writes in his commentary ‘The Walkman, Forty Years On‘ that the gadget that taught the world to socially distance. According to Wikipedia, the original Walkman, a popular portable cassette player, was released in 1979 which allowed people to listen to music of their choice on the move.

This reminds me of my Sony Walkman, which was the first gadget I own that I can remember. I used my Walkman to listen to songs for a long time and had developed a sentimental attachment to it. Though it is out of date, it must still be somewhere in my basement covered in dust.

Matt Alt commentary reminds us that before the popularity of the Walkman, music was loud and a shared experience with radios and boom boxes. After the Walkman, music was made more personal and could be listened to ‘in silence, cocooned within a personal soundscape, which spooled on analog cassette tape’. The Walkman instantly entrenched itself in daily life as a convenient personal music-delivery device. However, there were also growing concerns that its users were isolated.

With the advent of the Sony Walkman came the end of meeting people. It’s like a drug: You put the Walkman on and you blot out the rest of the world.

– Susan Blond, a vice-president at CBS Records, told the Washington Post in 1981

Steve Jobs Received a Walkman Gift

In 1980’s when Steve Jobs visited Japan in a business trip in search of disk-drive suppliers, the Sony chairman Akio Morita gave him Walkman as a gift. It appears that he was not interested in listening to cassettes on his Walkman but more interested in taking it apart pieces by piece, ‘reading tiny gears, drive belts, and capstans like tea leaves, to divine how he might, someday, make something so apically world-changing himself’. This lead Jobs to discover the first electronic digital-music player iPod, in 2001.

Steve’s point of reference was Sony at the time. 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.

John Sculley of Apple (source: The New Yorker)

Other highlights from Matt Alt commentary include:

  • Apple was able to re-design the hefty complicated Walkman design into a slick iPod to serve music digitally with the shuffle function. The reshuffle function provided listeners to remix entire musical libraries into never-ending audio backdrops for their lives.
  • Apple discovery continued with the release of the iPhone in 2007. The iPhone, a direct descendant of the iPod and Walkman — made stand-alone portable music players obsolete.
  • However, the original concept of headphones couldn’t be replaced remains until to-day.

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.

Matt Alt, The New Yorker