The Walkman cassette player turned 40 this year, leading to a retrospective on the part of Smithsonian. While an innovation at the time, the Walkman is a simple single function device: it only plays cassette tapes. As such, it might strike some as odd that the same prophecies of technological doom shouted today were shouted back in the heyday of the Walkman.
While lacking the ability to record, the Walkman was often used to play mixtapes, and these were presented as a dire threat to the music industry. While many truly horrible mixtapes were mixed, the industry survived. When the next musical tech innovation came along, the cry of doom echoed again in the land. And again, and again. And yet the day the music died has yet to come to pass. As such, it is sensible to heed the lesson of the Walkman: dire predictions of doom should be made more cautiously, and it should not be assumed that innovation is always a death knell. That said, technology can be a terrible swift sword—the challenge is sorting out what it slays and what it spares.
The Walkman was also used a symbol to engage in insulting criticism of the youth; Der Spiegel called it “A technology for a generation with nothing left to say.” Oddly enough, that generation has had a lot to say; the prophecy of silence did not come true. This view will sound quite familiar to those who have heard the bashing of millennials using smartphones and tablets as the focus of the attack; presumably the next terrible tech is in the labs, waiting to become the symbol of how terrible the youth of the future will be. Regardless of the technology, the youth are always presented as the worst generation and lacking in the virtues that their elders were said to have possessed. Of course, if every generation of youth were as terrible as claimed, the elders would be devoid of virtues—for today’s elders are yesterday’s youth. Before claiming that the youth of today are terrible, think back on what your elders said of you. Perhaps you were one of those terrible youths with a Walkman blasting their brains.
As should be expected, the Walkman was also accused of having brain rotting properties. Those who are old enough or interested in history will recall the dire prediction that TV would rot the minds of children. Alan Bloom, the philosopher of doom and gloom, wrote in The Closing of the American Mind about a Walkman defiled youth, “a pubescent child whose body throbs with orgasmic rhythms.” He predicted that “As long as they have the Walkman on, they cannot hear what the great tradition has to say.” Having grown up during the height of the Walkman era, I can assure readers that the Walkman did not have this effect. In addition to people listening to the classics on tapes, many people read them while listening to their Walkman, just as people had long read with music playing in the background over their Victrola, Gramophone, or stereo. Today the prediction is that the youth will stare mindlessly into screens, swiping rather than throbbing. But the truth is that the youth do read the classics on screens (and on paper) and that the dire predictions will no more come true now than they have in the past.
On this anniversary of the Walkman, it is worth considering there is a law governing the emergence of new entertainment technology and societal response. It is created, dire predictions are made, it becomes a symbol to use in lazy insults and then another generation is born, and a new technology emerges. Then the process repeats itself. The Walkman users were judged, now they are the judges. The smartphone kids will grow up to judge their kids, making dire predictions about whatever they think is rotting their brains.
It is certainly worth considering that a technology will be developed that will fulfil these prophecies of doom—that really does degrade, corrupt and isolate the youth. But until then, the cycle will continue.