The conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan once grumpily lamented the rise of "the iPod people." Walking down a New York street in February 2005, Sullivan saw each person "in his own musical world, walking to their soundtrack, stars in their own music video, almost oblivious to the world around them." Even as he copped to owning an iPod of his own—one of 67 million sold since its debut in 2001—Sullivan saw civilization crumbling in the friendly, well-designed face of the little Apple digital music player.
In blogging his horror, Sullivan joins a long line of worrywarts who have fretted about the cultural and political impact of portable music. But in The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness (Simon & Schuster), technology reporter Steven Levy argues that the ability to check out of the public sphere is one of the many virtues of Steve Jobs' minuscule machine. As the sociologist Rey Chow said of the iPod's predecessor, the Sony Walkman: "This is the freedom to be deaf to the loudspeakers of history. The Walkman allows me…to be a missing part of history."
There are parts of history that nearly everyone would be happy to miss out on. In New York's mayoral campaign of 2005, Levy relates, one candidate complained how hard it was to hijack peaceful pedestrians on their way to work when they have those white earbuds plugged in. "We have to come up with something to jam the iPods," he whined. But that's the beauty of the iPod. There's no jamming it. It's a self-contained unit, not reliant on a radio signal or even on the output of a record company.
Politicians aren't the only voices blocked by headphones and earbuds. Shortly after the Walkman was released in 1979, one history professor lamented that it was a menace that called "into existence still one more competitor to the voice of God." I, for one, rarely hear God's voice over the loudspeakers in the subway or on the blaring TV screens in the airport, but it's possible that I just never listened hard enough to the evangelical homeless man who used to ride my train on Tuesdays.
Still, when you're ignoring the sounds of the city and you're not even plugged into the same Top 40 hits as everyone else—when you are listening to your music, and only your music, all the time—isn't something lost? A common cultural reference point? Something to talk about with your friends?
The isolation problem occurred to the inventor of the very first portable music player, the Stereobelt, a homemade marvel with super-heavy industrial headphones and chunky wearable tape players. Seven years before Sony introduced the Walkman, inventor Andreas Pavel solved the problem of musical isolation with a second set of headgear. When he bumped into people on the street, or on the nature walks he liked to take while plugged in, "they would look astonished at me and then I would stop in front of them and, without saying anything, would take one of the two headphones and put it on their head. They would usually flip out completely. They would behave as if they were at a party."
But the two-headset solution, also in use on early Sony Walkmans, wasn't destined for success. Sony initially marketed listening to the Walkman as a great date activity. They recruited attractive couples to be seen walking arm-in-arm in the park while jacked in to the same music. Pavel used his headsets to impress chicks as well, taking a lady friend on a walk in the forest for one of the early test drives of his new invention. But as Sony CEO Akio Morita put it, "Although I originally thought it would be considered rude for one person to be listening to his music in isolation, buyers began to see their little portable stereo sets as very personal….We found that everybody seemed to want his or her own."
Even the ur-Pod—Levy's nickname for early cheap transistor radios—helped people tune out the people around them. In fact, those white earbuds that so alarmed Andrew Sullivan are not unique to the iPod. The very first transistor radios had a single white earplug too.
When the Walkman was born, Morita insisted on including a red "hotline" button so that people listening together could talk to each other. In other words, he missed the point. William Gibson, the man who coined the term cyberspace, credits the Walkman with his first hint of the future. "I didn't analyze it at the time, but in retrospect, I recognized the revolutionary intimacy of the interface. For the first time I was able to move my nervous system through a landscape with my choice of soundtrack," he told The New York Times in 1999. "I thought, if there is an imaginary point of convergence where the information this machine [a personal computer like the Apple IIc] handles could be accessed with the under-the-skin intimacy of the Walkman, what would that be like?"
Now we know.
Katherine Mangu-Ward is an associate editor of reason.