Where have you been all my life, Walkman?

'Hello there, friend!' 'I can't be your friend. Your neckerchief is in my space.'

The issue of personal space becomes a important point of discussion as population densities increase especially in urban centres. Personally, the sight of people in the subway (where I spend a hefty chunk of my waking life) with earbuds and headphones makes me think of the days of yore when music had to be on a medium independent of the personal entertainment devices the we use today; in short, the image of the Sony Walkman came waltzing into my brain.

When music was still distributed analog, at the risk of sounding like a luddite, human relations were better, if one looks at the Sony Walkman’s design. Contrary to the way music is consumed now in bubbles of private space in a public setting, thanks to earphones, music was shared between two friends, thanks to two phone jacks. If one was resourceful, four people can be on the same Walkman device at the same time. Music was shared. Wouldn’t you call that a party?

The idea of experiencing music on the go was such an innovative idea that no one could have predicted how much the technology would affect the industry in ways that we know of today. Before MP3s, kids, there were big discs made of vinyl that had music, physically recorded on both sides. Think of CDs but bigger and more sensitive to heat and pressure, hence more prone to warping. It was impossible to carry them in your backback and listen to the music at the same time, hence the invention of headphones with extra long cables for walking around the house.

8-Track paved the way for a smaller, portable device that allowed people to go outdoors with recorded albums without commercials like the radio. One can argue that the move towards portability was the destiny of music and the Sony Walkman was the medium.

The cassette tape made recording and transporting full-length albums possible; the easy-to-use recording mode of cassette players made compiling songs easier to do than ever! The age of the mixed tape is born.

Another testament to how human relations were better, the time and care it took to curate a mixed tape was in itself a statement. Personal compilations were made according to mood, subjective tastes, themes, etc. The mixed tape became a declaration of whatever the maker wanted to declare. A ‘mixed tape’ was usually a love note passed between lovers. ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ had a place in any 60 or 90 minute blank cassette tape sold between 1981 and 1992.

The move towards a more compact, easily distributed medium beginning with the cassette can be blamed for the music industry’s current perilous state; digital piracy is the big elephant in the room. Although it’s not a direct correlation, compact media like the cassette tape made blackmarket commerce of music grow at a rapid pace. It was more difficult to counterfeit vinyl recordings, for sure.

A mixed CD is just not the same as a mixed tape. The quickness of a drag-and-drop has taken away the involvement and the time needed to add sentimental value to the ‘Summers Jams 2009’ compilation that you made on your iTunes library. It’s just not the same.

The next time you are on the subway, look around you and notice the earbuds and headphones-shared space with personal headspace. The only sharing I have noticed is of the unwanted kind (see: overhearing ‘Umbrella’ at 8:30am is not as fun as the acoustic version played at the Open Mic night before). Sharing music on the Walkman, with the two headphone jacks, is no longer a practice. It would be just too awkward. Bye-bye mixed tapes. Hello Ping friends.

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Filed under Archaeology, City Life, History, ideas, Industrial Design, lifestyle, technology

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