How headphones liberated the individual

Black and white photo of two men and two women sitting in a New York subway car, three of them reading.  All wearable headphones for wearable listening devices
New Yorkers listening to their Walkman on the subway in the early 1980s © NY Daily News / Getty Images

1979 was the year of the individual. Thatcherism had begun. Deng Xiaoping allowed market forces into China through his “special economic zones”. Meanwhile, one of the most liberating consumer goods of the last century was being sold in Japan. It allowed people to control their sound environment – and to that extent, their mood – at all times. Even the trade name (too sexual to be viable now) hinted at a new kind of human being. Neolithic man. Renaissance man. Walkman.

Portable private audio: I’d like to welcome the spread of this invention, from luxury to commonplace. But what strikes me more is how far from universal it still is. On the street and on the subway, in airport lounges and in bank queues, most people have a free ear, even if unaccompanied. No AirPods adorn them. (Not even my favorite cheap Philips TAT2206.)

If you are one of the naysayers, let me ask you a question. How can you stand it? I mean dead air. Lack of stimulation. Or worse, the presence of the wrong type of stimulation. You’re vulnerable to the overheard chatter of others (“He’s not developmentally minded”) and the random honks of life. I like urban ambient noises. I think car-free cities will feel drab and inert. But the point is to tune in and out of melee as you please. In 44 years, technology has spared us unmediated exposure.

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A young man wearing headphones is playing a skill game

A young man with headphones in a San Francisco arcade in 1982 © Hearst Newspapers / Getty Images

We still don’t know why cities began to reverse their mid-20th century depopulation in the 1980s. Stricter policing is cited. So is the shift of work from factories (which need space) to services (which don’t). So is the cultural stigma attached to the suburbs. To that mix I would add the rise of mobile audio. For the first time, the townspeople could live in a sensory bubble. They can take the edge off their difficult environment. The streets have become what Dr. Michael Bull, a theorist of these things, calls “privatized pleasure palaces.”

As an urban reformer, I would rate the Walkman and its heirs over any transportation project or crime law in my lifetime. The Elizabeth Line is as good as first year anniversary reviews say. Drilling a new underground shaft in London, which affects most of the city, is a technical feat like putting a new vein in the wrist. The calming whitewash of the stations is Kubrick-esque.

In the end, however, the improvement to urban life will be less than the iPod. An invention speeds up (some) travel. The other – the flaneurhis friend—he made each of them so pleasant that he would most like to lie down.

The lesson is that technology, not politics, determines the structure of life. I keep reading that I am living the end of neoliberalism. But when was the individual freer: a generation ago or now? The tax burden was lower then. Trade between Britain and the Continent was easier. The USA and China did not collapse. But your mobile audio device was a Discman, both too cumbersome and too weak to use with confidence. So he engaged the city on a walk, not on his own terms. Not anymore. Multiply that by other atomizing creations—Uber, Airbnb—and the idea of ​​a new collectivist age makes more sense on paper than it does on the street.

Having been properly educated, I do not wear headphones in front of cashiers or other human beings. Being middle-aged, I ditched the huge, over-the-ear Sennheisers (I painted them like I was measuring airstrikes from a drone) in favor of discreet cases. Other than that, there are no restrictions. I hold them seconds before and seconds after the social gathering. I feel restless like a quitter when I leave the house without them.

Psychobabblers diagnose this as “avoidance” behavior, a ploy to avoid being alone with their thoughts. I doubt. My job requires hours of silence. I created a domestic environment of almost monastic calm. Disappearing into the self is exactly the point. Akio Morita, the great chairman of Sony, was sensitive to fears that the Walkman would enable rampant individualism. Thank God they persevered.

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