Ideas

Ideas | Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow

The gadget that broke humanity

Long before smartphones, the Sony Walkman lured consumers into their own electronic cocoons

Eric Petersen for The Boston Globe

In the early 1980s, a scourge was spreading throughout the United States in the form of a new consumer product. Pundits worried that it was making Americans antisocial and addicted to constant stimulation. It was, they fretted, ruining public space.

This menace was a high-tech gadget known as the Walkman.

First, a refresher for digital natives. Launched by Sony in 1979, the Walkman was a small portable cassette player with foam-covered headphones. (Generically it was sometimes called the personal stereo.) It allowed listeners to immerse themselves in the music of their choice wherever they went. “For Anytime, Anywhere, + Anybody,” one ad boasted, showing images of models roller-skating and carrying groceries while sporting headphones. For years it was one of the hottest gizmos around.

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The Walkman gave people the power to enhance their experiences while tuning out their surroundings. It fueled the idea that we can and should always have access to individualized entertainment. And it facilitated what we now call “multitasking,” with all the efficiencies and distractions that term implies. An ancestor to the iPod and the smartphone, the Walkman set in motion societal changes that are still reverberating almost forty years later.

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Today, it can be hard to convey the novelty and the magic of the Walkman at the time of its debut. Portable music had been available for decades, in the form of the transistor radio and then the boom box. But the Walkman was the first to envelop the listener in a stereophonic cocoon of high-quality sound — the first to provide a personal soundtrack for daily life. Early users described it as enchanting, invoking comparisons to drugs and the cinema (either watching a film or starring in one).

The rise of the Walkman also brought with it predictable hand-wringing. Ubiquitous entertainment, some said, was rendering ordinary life inadequate. In a 1982 article in the Los Angeles Times, titled “Just an Aspect of Inner Tripping: Headphones Make World Go Away,” communications theorist Eric McLuhan (son of Marshall) was quoted as saying, “It’s socially acceptable to wrap yourself in a sound bubble. . . We’ve lost the sense of the world being vital and invigorating.”

At the same time, as listeners roamed the streets in their sound bubbles, they were ignoring other people, opting out, to some extent, of shared space. In the Chicago Tribune, writer Rick Horowitz worried about the social and psychological implications of the Walkman craze. “In seeking a sort of emotional climate control wherever we go, are we not simply proving anew our growing determination not to deal with one another?” he wrote.

Even some Walkman enthusiasts acknowledged that this dimension was part of the device’s appeal. Vince Jackson, writing in the British magazine Touch, pondered the resulting dynamic. “The experience of listening to your Walkman is intensely insular,” he wrote. “It signals a desire to cut yourself off from the rest of the world at the touch of a button. You close your eyes and you could be anywhere.” As he recognized, that liberation could be alienating to others. “Play your Walkman and you might as well shout ‘Everybody just piss off!’”

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In a sense, the Walkman was the perfect fit for the 80s — the decade of “greed is good” and Reagan and Thatcher. It both embodied the era’s individualism and exacerbated it. Walking down the street with headphones, for example, made it easier to ignore pleas from homeless people. You no longer had to pretend you didn’t hear them; you actually didn’t hear them. A Walkman also made it less likely that, say, a lost passerby would ask you for directions; it seemed like too much trouble, or possibly intrusive. As the British critic and columnist A. N. Wilson wrote, “The personal stereo became the archetypal accessory of the me-generation.”

While some left-leaning critics perceived the Walkman as a symptom of a right-wing retreat from social responsibility, cultural conservatives were no fonder of it. To them, it represented individualism, too, but with different emphases. They were more concerned about the decline of the family and institutional affiliations, as well as what they saw as the related culture of instant gratification.

Over the course of the 1970s, rates of divorce and single parenthood had soared. At the same time, human company was becoming less and less necessary for recreation. On Aug. 1, 1981, MTV aired its first video: “Video Killed the Radio Star,” by the Buggles. Along with video games, MTV was part of a trend of mediated, incessantly available entertainment for young people. “Latchkey kids” were spending a great deal of time on their own — and they had the technology to amuse themselves.

In 1987, Allan Bloom, a professor at the University of Chicago, published “The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students,” which became a surprise bestseller and propelled its author into celebrity.

Bloom rued the erosion of allegiance to groups and communities, and the loss of faith in institutions such as church and country, as well as the decline of the family. And he deplored the centrality of music — specifically rock music — in the lives of young people. As he saw it, the Walkman was one of several tools in a suite that offered unrelenting enticements, distracting youths from more challenging and ultimately more gratifying endeavors. Music, he wrote, “is available 24 hours a day, everywhere. There is the stereo in the home, in the car; there are concerts; there are music videos . . . there are the Walkmans so that no place — not public transportation, not the library — prevents students from communing with the Muse, even while studying.”

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“Picture a 13-year-old boy sitting in the living room of his family home doing his math assignment while wearing his Walkman headphones or watching MTV,” Bloom wrote. He described the teen as taking advantage of centuries of personal sacrifice, political courage, and scientific breakthroughs. “And in what does progress culminate?” Bloom’s answer: “a nonstop, commercially prepackaged masturbational fantasy.”

He concluded: “As long as they have the Walkman on, they cannot hear what the great tradition has to say. And, after its prolonged use, when they take it off, they find they are deaf.”

Although the Walkman became strongly identified with disaffected teenagers, its popularity was not limited to them. It was a huge hit with another major 80s demographic: the yuppies, who were preoccupied with self-improvement, particularly in terms of health and fitness. They purchased aerobics videos (Jane Fonda released her first in 1982) and clothes made of materials like Lycra and Spandex and Gore-Tex. And they bought personal stereos to make their exertions more bearable, to allow them to focus on a song or a book instead of a cramp or a strain. In some cases, tapes were marketed to accompany exercise, as in Fonda’s “Fitness Walkout,” which explicitly depended on the Walkman for its use.

In popular culture, yuppies were often presented as Walkman fans. The cover of “The Yuppie Handbook,” published in 1984, featured a blond woman wearing a blue Ralph Lauren suit, running shoes, and a Walkman. Declaring 1984 “The Year of the Yuppie,” Newsweek ran on its cover a Garry Trudeau cartoon with a woman in a similar uniform.

While the Walkman came to symbolize teenagers’ passivity and lack of discipline, then, for affluent adults it served the opposite purpose: It was a tool of efficiency and productivity. The Walkman was an indispensable accessory for the kind of person who blasted Depeche Mode to jumpstart a 10-mile jog, or who listened to books on tape while commuting, for maximum edification. There was, however, a common theme to both stereotypes: apolitical individualism.

Reading critiques of the Walkman now, they seem both uncannily familiar and amusingly quaint. Technological change has both amplified the trends associated with the Walkman and ushered in very different ones. Today, the influence of our devices is much more sweeping, for good and for ill. The smartphone is a handmaiden to narcissists and activists, bullies and refugees, procrastinators and workaholics. While the Walkman isolated its users, the smartphone both isolates us from those in our physical vicinity and connects us to people farther away.

Because it connects, the smartphone, unlike the Walkman, is a social and political tool. Think of videos of police shootings, taken with smartphones, disseminated with smartphones, watched on smartphones around the world. You could not accuse our age of being an apolitical or complacent one. The fruits of all this politicization are hard to assess. Our technologies played a role in the rise of President Obama and President Trump, of Black Lives Matter and newly resurgent white supremacists. Ultimately, as Rebecca Solnit wrote in “River of Shadows,” her book about rapid technological change in the late 19th century, “There are infinite ways to measure what has been gained and what has been lost, and only one clear thing: the world is utterly changed.”

The Walkman enabled us, however fleetingly, to escape. Our phones — even when we use them to listen to Beyonce or play Candy Crush — do not. We remain in a realm of chimes and buzzes, news alerts and text messages. Both kinds of devices, and the larger dynamics at play, entail losses and gains. But these days, it must be said, the prospect of putting on headphones and tuning out the world sounds pretty nice.

Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow is the author of the book “Personal Stereo,” from which this article was adapted.