The Walkman Effect

Over the last few weeks, we have examined the role digitisation plays in various Asian societies and how they interact with those cultures, particularly Japan and South Korea. These two countries have advanced technological innovation that their efforts, both in the past and present, have produced profound impacts on both theirs and our own societies and cultures, a classical result of globalisation.

However, most of these innovations have come through the work of transnational corporations, such as Sony, Panasonic and Toyota. For my individual research project, I wanted to examine the effect these large, robust companies effect the rest of the world, and in keeping with the topics of digital Asia and autoethnography, I believe studying the history, impact and experience of Sony’s revolutionary Walkman would be a perfect fit.

As this investigation will be done under autoethnographic methodology, this, as explained by Ellis et al (2011) is the act of observing a cultural experience and discussing how your own personal cultural experiences affect the way in which you experience this, as well as drawing on “subjectivity, emotionality and the researcher’s influence on research”. I find autoethnography to be very fitting for something of this nature, as it draws upon my own experience and views of Japan’s digital/technological innovations, their industry and one of their finest creations- The Walkman. It also means that I will draw upon my experience using either a Walkman or something of similar nature, and understanding how it works and it’s functionality in comparison to todays mobile audio players, which owe their existence to this device.

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The mobile audio device industry is currently undergoing an evolution of convergence, as mobile phones are becoming a more popular choice as their functions not only include those done by calculators and laptops, but also come with the ability to listen to audio files and the radio; a speciality that the Walkman instigated.

To understand the development of the Walkman, you will need to understand the differing cultures that were behind the production of it, and those who the producers were aiming to buy it. The Walkman came about at the request of Sony co-founder Masaru Ibuka, who wished to listen to Opera music during his long-haul flights to the United States and Europe. At the time, Ibuka would either have to request the airlines place his exact opera tracks into their sound system, which would of been an extensive and wasteful operation for airline inflight-entertainments at the time, or he would have needed to heave one of these around the aircraft and airports;

s-l400

Whilst the nature of it’s purpose was exactly what Ibuka needed, it was too heavy and large to bring on international flights, so he requested that it merely be shrunk to fit on his belt. Eventually, the design and tape recorder divisions crafted an end result, a device that allowed the user to listen to the radio or their desired cassette tapes anywhere, anytime (as long as the appropriate batteries were installed)

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The first Walkman, the grandaddy of them all.

Sony predicted it would only sell roughly 5,000 units per month; yet the Walkman would in fact sell roughly 25,000 in its first month alone (Time). At the request of Sony Chairman Akio Morita, all Walkmans were installed with a “hotline” switch, which immediately lowered the volume of the cassette/radio and amplified a microphone to allow users to have conversations with others without needing to take off their headphones, this was added as Morita feared the Walkman would be isolating to those in society (Patton 2003)

 

This is where the design, purpose and usage of the Walkman get’s into the socio-cultural differences of our world. In Japan, and Sony for that matter, the Walkman was designed to accompany travellers on long journeys or to be used in personal spaces, such as the office whilst doing work. In Western countries such as the United States, Europe, Britain and Australia, the Walkman was advertised as a “revolution” (as seen in the aforementioned advertisement) to how we went about our daily lives. Advertisements in the West, from the late 70’s to early 90’s, displayed a liberating, lifestyle-changing movement, which it ultimately did lead to. Take the first United States commercial;

 

 It displays the separation of society if one does or does not have a Walkman. If you have a walkman, everything becomes liberating, vivid and fun; whereas everything is mundane and boresome without it. I find this to be quite striking, as Japanese concerns, particularly elders and more conservative figures in society, believed that there indeed would be a separation like that seen in the video. However, it would be the opposite, as the Walkman was seen in Japan as being a narcissistic, anti-social device that transitions society to be closed off from one another.

These views are echoed even within our society today, with innovations such as the Google Glass causing concerns over safety and social behaviours. But did the Japanese have a point? Did this seemingly simple, yet magnificent, creation damage our social capabilities? And if so, why and how did it?

My research will look into an array of topics and questions, such as the evolution and impact of the Walkman, how it compares with today’s devices and what todays devices learn’t from it, as well as the social and economical footprint it has left. These will be done using various methodologies, such as observation (how and where people use their audio devices) and research efforts such as interviewing different generations and their experience/perceptions of mobile audio. It will also employ my preconceptions, experiences and tools to get an understanding of just how impactful the Walkman has been.

 

Ellis, C Adams, T E, Bochner, A P 2011, ‘Authoethnography: An Overview’, Qualitative Social Research, vol. 12, no. 1

Patton, Phil 2003 “Walkman”, philpatton.com  https://web.archive.org/20070814024224/http://www.philpatton.com:80/walkman.html 

Hair, M 2009, “A Brief History of the Walkman”, Time.com, http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1907884,00.html

Franze, C 2014 “The History of the Walkman: 35 years of iconic music listening”, The Verge

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