HERE’S AN anniversary we can’t ignore. It’s 35 years this year since bus and train travellers first heard the infuriating tinny sounds of someone else’s music spilling from tiny earphones.
Yep, three and a half decades ago, in July, 1979, Sony launched the Walkman, the world’s first personal and portable music machine.
In this era of digital iPods, the cassette machine seems to have come from the Dark Ages, but it was a sensation at the time.
With the advent of the Walkman, listening to music became a solitary, immersive experience.
Sony chose the name Walkman partly because of the popularity of Superman at the time, but some people think of it more like kryptonite.
The first version of the device had two headphone jacks. That’s because Marsaru Ibuka, the co-CEO of Sony, refused to believe that anyone would be anti-social enough to want to seal themselves off from the rest of the world with a bubble of noise. He was wrong. The second headphone jack disappeared on the second generation of the Walkman.
British commentator A.N.Wilson recently said the arrival of the Walkman marked the exact moment when “one section of the population became literally deaf to the existence of the other half”.
Wilson described the Walkman as one of the biggest blights of urban life.
Before the Walkman, he said, people used to enjoy hearing music on a jukebox in the cafe, or from the transistor radio blaring from the builder’s scaffolding. People used to gather around radios and music listening provided a sort of social glue that crossed the class divide and even bound together generations.
These days, half the world seems to be semi-permanently connected to iPods and iPhones and many walk the streets adrift in their little worlds of playlists, shuffled songs and noisy desperation.
Today’s digital technology is unparalleled in history as a means of communicating with others and as a means of sharing information.
It is ironic that many find themselves increasingly isolated from the presence of other people.