Sony co-founder Akio Morita, in his iconic book ‘Made in Japan’, adds a lot of background details on how and why the Walkman was invented.
Besides the more obvious reasons that we can intuitively guess now—portability, personal content consumption (of music), and freedom in content consumption, another reason explained in two different places in the book is about social grace and civility: to not disturb others with our music in a public space.
This framing of a reason behind Walkman’s invention is counter-intuitive.
Portability, personal content consumption, and freedom are about the self – the user (the buyer of Walkman). They put the buyer’s needs as a priority and solve those problems – in other words, this is thinking inside-out.
But putting the needs of the people around the buyer on priority and having a product to ensure that the buyer of their product does not disturb others (which did happen via Boomboxes back in those days) is an outside-in framing of the product’s positioning.
Over time, the Walkman has come to represent conscious social isolation. The Walkman produced this effect through the headphones.
The Apple AirPods, which take that sentiment forward, is now the epitome of conscious social isolation – when you see someone wearing those obviously white earbuds, you know that they have chosen to tune out their surroundings from an auditory perspective, and have chosen to place themselves in a public place only via sight and physical presence. They literally mean, “I don’t want to interact with anyone, but I will continue to walk around people”.
Interestingly, Sony’s Morita also mentions that “the company was hesitant to release a product that could be considered selfish“!
So, the first-ever Walkman, TPS-L2 had what was then called ‘hotline’ function, a distinctively big orange button. When pressed, the cassette playback faded to the background and let the user listen to ambient sounds more clearly. And TPS-L2 also had 2 mini headphone jacks (but the unit came with only one MDR-3L2 headphone!) so that the music could be shared by two listeners at the same time!
All this was back in 1979 when the first Walkman was launched. So it is entirely ironic and interesting that some of the latest true wireless Bluetooth earbuds have a ‘passthrough’ feature that enables the user to let in ambient sound and be more present and aware of her surroundings!
For instance, the Amazon Echo Buds have this passthrough feature that you can adjust to increase or reduce ambient sound around you, exactly like the first Walkman’s big orange button!
In a way, the first Walkman ushered in a kind of violation in the way an individual presents themselves in public, according to Rainer Schönhammer, who teaches Psychology at Burg Giebichenstein Kunsthochschule Halle/Saale (Germany). In his 1988 paper titled, ‘The Walkman and the Primary World of the Senses‘, Rainer says,
Imagine a passerby carrying a large portable tape recorder turned on at high volume. Perhaps we are pleased to be able to listen to the music resounding in our ears. More likely we resent the invasion of noise. In the first case, no aversive attitude toward the music maker is likely to arise. In the second case, we consider him or her as an antisocial being. But, in contrast to the earphone listener, the music maker is breaking down invisible walls of separateness rather than erecting them. We see the earphone user as living in a private acoustic world which we are unable to share. This seems to interrupt a form of contact between “normal” people in a shared situation, even if there is no explicit communication at all. People with earphones seem to violate an unwritten law of interpersonal reciprocity: the certainty of common sensual presence in shared situations.
In the same paper, Rainer also cites the example of sunglasses:
Dark sunglasses, too, may irritate. But irritation, in this case, arises because the balance between looking at and being looked at becomes unequal.
The striking part of this line of thought is that we are now living a reality where large face masks are on every face! More than the earbuds or sunglasses masks literally mask our face and the emotions we depict on them, accentuating the ‘violation of interpersonal reciprocity’!
But, seen from an outside-in perspective, both earbuds and face masks perhaps could be positioned as something people may consider buying in service of the people around them as against being positioned as tools to isolate or protect oneself.
Before the pandemic, in my many flights, I could notice many people playing music through their phones or speaking on the phones via the phone speaker at all kinds of public spaces – coffee shops, airports, inside the plane before it takes off (and music/movies after it takes off). This is exactly like using boomboxes in the 80s, but with a much smaller device!
Bluetooth earbuds or headphones could hence be positioned as a product worth considering to avoid disturbing the people around you, whether at home or outside – as a way to be considerate to the people around you!
Similarly, masks, during a pandemic, could also be positioned as something to help the people around you be safe and not catch the virus!
As against the self-focused ‘Enjoy great sound’, ‘Envelope yourself with sound’ positioning for Bluetooth earbuds/headphones, and ‘Save yourself’ positioning for face masks, flipping the perspective to outside-in offers a more positive, considerate, and helpful tone!