Dec 17, 2005

On iPods and Walkmen

This is an unpublished essay that has been bouncing around on my laptop for a few months; I am looking for feedback on themes I may not have considered...thanks!

Headphones, those aural attachments linking people and machines, are found in almost every setting that features human activity. As my children left for school recently, chief among their concerns was to make sure that they brought headphones and music. Boarding the bus that carried them to school, headphones were donned and each wearer traveled to the accompaniment of an individualized soundtrack.

Headphones and portable music devices, of course, are no longer novel products. Sony launched the first Walkman in 1979; it was initially called, variously, the “Soundabout,” the “Stowaway,” and the “Freestyle” in different world markets. The birth of the Walkman signaled a new era in personal entertainment. The iPod, while offering digital technology and unlimited programming possibilities, is really just a more evolved concept of an older machine. Users of both devices tune in to music that they have personally chosen, while they simultaneously tune out from the rest of humanity.

I was struck by the sight of over half the students on the school bus, quietly ensconced in their own musical refuges. The lack of connection to the outside world seemed to me to be analogous to social changes wrought by the consumerist mentalité honed in these recent decades of hyper-capitalism; under the guise of personal choice and individual freedom, human interaction appears to be increasingly seen as a distraction, rather than an integral part of life.

Hearkening back to my childhood, I thought of my own experiences on busses or in automobiles. One of the best ways to pass the time was to engage in song – the louder the better. As I traveled with other children on field trips, vacations, or visits to relatives’ houses, the defining event on such excursions was group singing, especially such wonderful ditties as “99 Bottles of Beer”:

99 bottles of beer on the wall
99 bottles of beer,
If one of those bottles should happen to fall,
98 bottles of beer on the wall.

Despite the protests of any nearby adults, the communal joy of group song united us youngsters and awakened a sense of the power of social bonds. There was still freedom for the individualists, who could interject lyric changes (“99 bottles of pee on the wall”) or magnitude shifts (“a million bottles of beer on the wall”). Free market aficionados – usually parents or employed older siblings - could also negotiate the terms of group solidarity (“I will give each of you a dollar to be quiet for the next hour”). Ultimately, even this attempt to bribe the silence of the nascent group consciousness only reinforced the collective sense; the same could be said for desperate authoritarian measures, as found in a weary parent demanding silence.

Pre-Walkman teens engaged in a variety of communal experiences involving music. Eagerly anticipated by any young person with a radio was the weekly countdown. There were, of course, plenty of songs that any given listener hated, but always a few worth waiting for. The rise of FM radio in the 1970s increased the number of choices, but groups became defined by their stations of choice. Powerful car stereos, for the most part, blasted the stations in which the listeners identified. If eight-tracks or cassettes were played, the group still listened – sometimes grudgingly – to the consensus choice.

Even the boom-box, despite its intrusion into the domiciles of neighbors, possessed an element of community. Megawatt entertainment centers, usually propped upon the shoulder of the possessor, broadcast musical selections hundreds of yards. Whether one loved, despised, or remained indifferent to the box owner’s musical taste, every person within earshot shared the experience.

The Walkman, however, added a completely new element to the mix – the isolated musical consumer. One no longer joined others on a musical excursion, put up with the choices of the group, or remained resigned to the cacophonous choices of others. Largely cut off from the outside world, Walkman owners temporarily plugged into a sonic universe of self-seeking detachment in which, like an aural opiate, offered an escape from reality.

The iPod, like the Walkman, isolates the listener from the people around them. The owner of the device, however, is in a sense even more removed, as the very playlist is individualized. Alone in a musical oasis, the iPod owner becomes separated from humanity, and contact with others is seen as an intrusion, rather than an integral part of human existence.

And the band played on…


elric1488 said...

As long as they listen to Panzerfaust ipods and walkmans are fine.

IsisDC said...

I suggest smoking a big fat doobie, then put on the headset.

May I recommend, "Dark Side of the Moon".

Erlic- isn't "Panzerfaust" some kind of powdered sugar cookie one eats at Christmas time?

historymike said...

Elric: I am amazed at your ability to try and find a way to tying everything to your racist worldview.

(Note: Panzerfaust is a record label tied with the white supremacist goup National Alliance; it appears to have become defunct and absorbed by Free Your Mind Productions).

Isis: I don't advocate self-medication or the consumption of illegal substances, but Dark Side of the Moon is an awesome album - straight or high.

IsisDC said...

"Isis: I don't advocate self-medication or the consumption of illegal substances"

Har, it would do ya some good!!

Mr. Schwartz said...

I remember portable listening devices before the Walkman. But it was the Walkman that became the standard.

I had this portable AM transistor radio in the early 70s that had those single ear headpieces to listen to. It sounded like crap. But back then, AM stations actually played top 40 music. I also remember DX'ing at night trying to pick up far away AM radio stations.

Some of the smaller AM stations like here in Saluda, Newberry and Greenwood, SC still play a lot of pop music but go off the air at dusk.

I also remember waiting for Casey Kasum's top 40 countdown each weekend on WCAO in Baltimore when I was teen.

Speaking of memories I remember getting a portable 8 track player that you had to push down a handle to switch tracks. Nothing like listening to groups like Styx and AC/DC with an 8 track. I still have a 8 track player for a car in my barn. It's in the same box I still have my Commodore Vic-20 and Atari 2600 games at. I might dig em out and see if they still work.

LST said...

Never have I felt more removed from humanity, more isolated, than when I sat on a bus on a field trip singing "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall." I love my iPod. I gave one to my son so that he might feel more connected to humanity than I had an opportunity to feel prior to the advent of the headphone.

Lisa Renee said...

lol Harry my 69 Roadrunner had an 8 track player.

I don't let my kids take theirs to school mainly because they forget it leave it somewhere and chances are it's gone forever.

However, there is an advantage to having them here - I don't have to listen to their music....


Lisa Renee said...

Elric might enjoy this one...


Matt Drudge, Jr. said...

Hmmmmmmm, sounds like you're getting old.

ajax saith said...

"The iPod, like the Walkman, isolates the listener from the people around them. The owner of the device, however, is in a sense even more removed, as the very playlist is individualized. Alone in a musical oasis, the iPod owner becomes separated from humanity, and contact with others is seen as an intrusion, rather than an integral part of human existence."

my personal radio and earphones have been one of my best friends i have ever come to know, my friend provides for me constant comfort and companionship and keeps me informed of current events and pacifys and stimulates my mind when engaging in mundane boring tasks

the personal radio, cassette player, mp3 these are modern wonders that millions around the world enjoy and part of that enjoyment is to provide a personal sanctuary where the individual can control the intake stimulation through their ears, to insuallate and isolate and control what may enter the ear and effect the mental processing, this is a level of personal freedom that we should all champion

historymike apparantly is alarmed by this level of personal choice and freedom, maybe historymike feels threatened by the personal freedom conflicting with his left socialist mindset, as an indoctrinated leftist he subconsciously thinks now his mission in life is to indoctrinate others with the left agenda, but how to do it with all these people going in their separate directions? they are not behaving as sheep to be collectivized as they are like when in school, so it presents a problem to historymike

make the personal entertainment device as an anti-social instrumnent, make it as a device that will create symptoms of mental illness, people using these devices at first will be warned of its dangers by reading the danger label that the manufacturers will be forced to attach to them, then the restrictions will begin: no listening in libraries, restaurants, stores, all because non-listeners will feel threatened by the display of dangerous isolated anti-social activity

i can think of another product the leftists have worked very hard to restrict and will eventually outright prohibit under the guise of protecting society: tobacco

just as the leftist nicotine nazi fascists have made war against tobacco a part of their social dogood agenda they just might attack the personal entertainment devices if they feel their collectivist hold on the sheepeople is threatened, especially if they see a dramatic increase in what they consider racist music being listened to by young white males

Lisa Renee said...

Yeppers, that's me, soon I'll be older than dirt.


Matt Drudge, Jr. said...

Anyways, Mike, the only real concern you have about the advent of the Walkman and iPod is that it allows people to tune into voices that are not prescribed by your Leftist, social-engineering crowd. That scares the crap out of you and your ilk.

Lisa Renee said...

Matt, you don't have kids do you?

Mike raises a valid concern, the lack of communication between some of these kids who are all plugged into their own little worlds is something to consider. Then add to that the possible damage to their hearing later in life caused by years of listening to music thru earpieces at a loud volume.

While the ability to tune out the world at times can be a necessary one it can go to far.

historymike said...


Lisa gets the choice between Doors 1, 2, and 3.

Something is lost when everyone is off in their aural vacations, something collective, something social.

We need a balance between "self" and "society;" too much of either sphere is unhealthy.

Unfortunately, Lisa, too many people under 30 only know the consumerist /self-centered/ individualist pop culture that has dominated American life in the past 20-25 years.

IsisDC said...

*UGH* you two might want to hike up your pant and shake your fist at I-Pods and headsets, but heck I think they are qool.

Life is over crowded as it is, and these sweet little escapes to music are fun an healthy.

Like Harry, I used to listen to my transiter radio with an ear pug back in the in 70's and the kids today are doing nothing different than what we did back then.

The only difference is they have better sound quality and more songs.

Hooda Thunkit said...

"Alone in a musical oasis, the iPod owner becomes separated from humanity, and contact with others is seen as an intrusion, rather than an integral part of human existence."

This increasing isolation maybe having in some small way contributed to anti-social behavior such as say, Columbine?

Or, maybe stifling individual thought?

Acting as a tranquilizer/stimulator for an over-active/idle mind…?

Sometimes I have to wonder...

Lisa Renee said...

(Lisa hikes up her pants, squints at the screen)

A once in a while escape can be awesome, it's just when it becomes more than once in a while. Some of these kids have ipods appearing to be surgically attached to them.

Erin uses hers when she studies, it blocks out the house sounds of many siblings. That wouldn't work for me but it does for her. I think the general idea is moderation is good, extreme is not good.

Greg A said...

Interesting article. As a college student, I notice the use of ipods is widespread in many aspects of daily routine among a great number of students, although perhaps still among a minority. The listener often does react to an initiative for conversation as interrupting rather than inviting, and it wouldn't be wrong to say the listeners can be seen with a sign: "off limits for conversation."

What's amazing is the number of ipods in use even in the library (during exam week at that). My former teacher remarked that personal listening devices had to be banned during school hours (in highschool) because of their use in the halls during the couple of minutes allowed to change classrooms, because the students "couldn't be alone with their thoughts for even a couple of minutes" (usually only three or four). I don't disagree. The constant use of ipods takes up the short time each day college students are afforded to reflect and consider, rather than compliment it.

I wonder how the use of ipods while studying effects the retainment of information as well as the ability to critically think and organize as one reads - for me it's nearly impossible. Then again, when questioned, other students have told me that it does indeed allow them to better absorb their material.

ajax saith said...

it is all about personal choice, and corresponding personal responsibility

the socialist left feels a need to make the choice for the individual, the freeman says 'i will make that choice on my own'

the socialist left talks about 'choice' when they advocate and promote abortion (infanticide) but they certainly do not believe in choice when it comes to one of their pet crusades, tobacco for example, they not only extort billions from the tobacco manufacturers who have provided society a product to choose from, they are slowly but surely driving tobacco products into extinction, all under the guise of 'protecting society', while in reality restricting the 'choice' that the socialist hypocrites so fervently claim to cherish, this is an example of socialist left responsibility overloardship

now historymike introduces another possible pet crusade of freedom restriction, while it is not at all realistic to suggest historymike would like to play the socialist responsibility overloard role in restricting the personal entertainment device uses, he does use socialist code words suggesting his disapproval, i would say to historymike the restrictions belong to those who have the proper authority role such as parents and teachers in classrooms and other similar settings

we can all learn what social manners are and what behavior we perceive to be appropriate and inappropriate and what is in good taste and what is in bad taste, but the problem is not the product itself it is the manner and setting in which it is used

to someone who is in a socially isolated setting, alone at the workplace, living in a remote village, hiking in the woods, etc etc these personal entertainment devices can be a godsend

valbee said...

Hooda said:

"Alone in a musical oasis, the iPod owner becomes separated from humanity, and contact with others is seen as an intrusion, rather than an integral part of human existence."

This increasing isolation maybe having in some small way contributed to anti-social behavior such as say, Columbine?

I have to totally disagree with this statement. It's just like trying to blame music lyrics for kids that kill themselves. Or trying to say that lyrics influenced someone to murder someone else. Columbine happened because something was wrong with those kids emotionally. You can take away the computers, video games, iPods and any other electronic device that you think bears some influence... and someone who wants to be isolated from the rest of society will still find a way to do so. iPods are an escape, just like books were when I was a kid. I remember being told to "go outside and get some fresh air" on more than one occasion. (I just took the book outside with me.)

I have an iPod and one of my favorite places to use it is one of my least favorite places to go: the grocery store. But, as with cell phones, a little bit of courtesy is required... when I'm in the checkout line, I turn it off and TALK to my cashier.

And to Greg A.. I'm one who can't listen to music when I study, but I have heard of experiments done where students listened to classical music while studying math, and it actually improved their performance on tests. Although, it seems like any study ends up being disproven these days... :)

Hooda Thunkit said...


Two small points in what you took exception to:

"This increasing isolation maybe having in some small way contributed to anti-social behavior such as say, Columbine?"

1. Increasing isolation, as in disassociation with the rest of humanity and not trying to interact and fit in with...

2.Anti-social behavior, as above.

Action and thought in a virtual vacuum can not be a good thing for growing and impressional minds.