Andrew Potter:

Promoters of the device loved the way it enabled a completely new form of urban autonomy. As Sony’s head of audio products put it, the Walkman “provided listeners with a personal soundtrack to their lives,” allowing its users “to make even the most boring daily activities interesting, adding a bit of personal style to everything they do.”

But for many, that was precisely the problem. The Walkman promoted isolation, narcissism, and detachment, destroying the sense of common space that fosters the  interactions that are the basis of community and public life. It “killed the art of the conversation,” went one news story. Others piled on: “Drug abuse is now earphone abuse.” “Headsets tune out life itself.”  As Susan Blond, a VP at CBS Records, said to the Washington Post:  “With the advent of the Sony Walkman came the end of meeting people. It’s like a drug: You put the Walkman on and you blot out the rest of the world.”

Last week at the gym, it was one of those days. Every piece of equipment I wanted to use had someone already sitting on it, thumbfucking his phone for several minutes in between sets. Sure, you can always go over, get his attention, and ask how many more sets he has. You’ll almost always get an embarrassed apology and he’ll turn his attention back to his lifts with a little more urgency. But, like many others, I also don’t feel like interacting with people if I can help it, so maybe I have more in common than I’d like to think with the people who walk around all day with what look like forgotten Q-tips sticking out of their ears.

I was an enthusiastic member of the Walkman generation. I spent many hours in the backseat burning through AA batteries, to my parents’ annoyance. But by the time smartphones and earbuds came along, even I started to wonder if something important hadn’t been lost. I too feel irritated at the oblivious look of someone slouched over, staring at their toy phone in public. I too feel annoyed at how starting a conversation now involves the extra step of repeating yourself because your first question was followed by a bewildered look and some fumbling with the phone or earbuds before they were capable of hearing you. At work, one of our employees is a DJ at a local station. Either he or I will pick something to listen to throughout the day and play it through a Bluetooth speaker. Once in a while, I will put in my own earbuds, maybe because there’s something in particular that I really want to hear without subjecting everyone else to it, or because there’s only so many times I can hear Bob Dylan or the Clash before I want to puncture my own eardrums. I always feel guilty about it, though, so I don’t do it often. Much of the enjoyment is in the banter about the music — memories and stories about artists and concerts, wisecracks about terrible songs that the algorithm brings up, or the occasional games, like a harrowing version of Truth or Dare, where we pick an artist or genre and do a deep dive to see what surprises we find, good or bad. It’s worth sacrificing a little bit of optimized personal pleasure for that.