The Walkman, Forty Years On | The New Yorker
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.”
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.
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.”
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’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.’ ”