Saturday, April 19, 2008

Privatized sound? - from the Walkman to the iPod

I have recently been re-reading some essays written in the 1980s by Marxist/Feminist cultural critic Judith Williamson, collected together in her book Consuming Passions: the Dynamics of Popular Culture (London: Marion Boyars, 1986), The following essay was originally published in the London magazine City Limits in 1983, and is a response to the popularity of the (then new) Sony Walkman personal stereo. 25 years later, with the Walkman superseded by the iPod and music playing mobiles, some of the arguments about their use as amounting to a privatized withdrawal from social life still ring true. But equally part of me feels that human sociability is stronger than any technical device or political offensive to created atomised citizens - with the mobile phone in particular there are contradictory things going on, listening to music in private while simultaneously being involved in communications with others on a scale that would have been unthinkable 25 years ago.


A vodka advertisement in the London underground shows a cartoon man and woman with little headphones over their ears and little cassette-players over their shoulders. One of them holds up a card which asks, 'Your place or mine?' - so incapable are they of communicating in any other way.

The walkman has become a familiar image of modern urban life, creating troops of sleep-walking space-creatures, who seem to feel themselves invisible because they imagine that what they're listening to is inaudible. It rarely is: nothing is more irritating than the gnats' orchestra which so frequently assails the fellow-passenger of an oblivious walk-person sounding, literally, like a flea in your ear. Although disconcertingly insubstantial, this phantom music has all the piercing insistency of a digital watch alarm; it is your request to the headphoned one to turn it down that cannot be heard. The argument that the walkman protects the public from hearing one person's sounds, is back-to-front: it is the walk-person who is protected from the outside world, for whether or not their music is audible they are shut off as if by a spell.

The walkman is a vivid symbol of our time. It provides a concrete image of alienation, suggesting an implicit hostility to, and isolation from, the environment in which it is worn.

Yet it also embodies the underlying values of precisely the society which produces that alienation - those principles which are the lynch-pin of Thatcherite Britain: individualism, privatization and 'choice'. The walkman is primarily a way of escaping from a shared experience or environment. It produces a privatized sound, in the public domain; a weapon of the individual against the communal. It attempts to negate chance: you never know what you are going to hear on a bus or in the streets, but the walk-person is buffered against the unexpected - an apparent triumph of individual control over social spontaneity. Of course, what the walkperson controls is very limited; they can only affect their own environment, and although this may make the individual feel active (or even rebellious) in social terms they are absolutely passive. The wearer of a walkman states that they expect to make no input into the social arena, no speech, no reaction, no intervention. Their own body is the extent of their domain. The turning of desire for control inwards towards the body has been a much more general phenomenon of recent years; as if one's muscles or jogging record were all that one could improve in this world. But while everyone listens to whatever they want within their 'private' domestic space, the peculiarity of the walkman is that it turns the inside of the head into a mobile home rather like the building society image of the couple who, instead of an umbrella, carry a tiled roof over their heads (to protect them against hazards created by the same system that provides their mortgage).

This interpretation of the walkman may seem extreme, but only because first, we have become accustomed to the privatization of social space, and second, we have come to regard sound as secondary to sight - a sort of accompaniment to a life which appears as essentially visual. Imagine people walking round the streets with little TVs strapped in front of their eyes, because they would rather watch a favourite film or programme than see where they were going, and what was going on around them. (It could be argued that this would be too dangerous - but how about the thousands of suicidal cyclists who prefer taped music to their own safety?). This bizarre idea is no more extreme in principle than the walkman. In the visual media there has already been a move from the social setting of the cinema, to the privacy of the TV set in the living-room, and personalized mobile viewing would be the logical next step. In all media, the technology of this century has been directed towards a shift, first from the social to the private - from concert to record-player - and then of the private into the social - exemplified by the walkman, which, paradoxically, allows someone to listen to a recording of a public concert, in public, completely privately.

The contemporary antithesis to the walkman is perhaps the appropriately named ghetto-blaster. Music in the street or played too loud indoors can be extremely anti-social although at least its perpetrators can hear you when you come and tell them to shut up. Yet in its current use, the ghetto-blaster stands for a shared experience, a communal event. Outdoors, ghetto-blasters are seldom used by only their individual owners, but rather act as the focal point for a group, something to gather around. In urban life 'the streets' stand for shared existence, a common understanding, a place that is owned by no-one and used by everyone. The traditional custom of giving people the 'freedom of the city' has a meaning which can be appropriated for ourselves today. There is a kind of freedom about chance encounters, which is why conversations and arguments in buses and bus-queues are often so much livelier than those of the wittiest dinner party. Help is also easy to come by on urban streets, whether with a burst shopping bag or a road accident.

It would be a great romanticization not to admit that all these social places can also hold danger, abuse, violence. But, in both its good and bad aspects, urban space is like the physical medium of society itself. The prevailing ideology sees society as simply a mathematical sum of its individual parts, a collection of private interests. Yet social life demonstrates the transformation of quantity into quality: it has something extra, over and above the characteristics of its members in isolation. That 'something extra' is unpredictable, unfixed, and resides in interaction. It would be a victory for the same forces that have slashed public transport and privatized British Telecom, if the day were to come when everyone walked the street in headphones.

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