originally published August 8, 2013

It’s not uncommon to look around while riding the bus and notice that everyone around you is staring vacantly into oblivion, plain white earbuds tethered to their heads like pod-zombies wired into the Matrix. I know – I’m one of them, although I prefer the comfy over-the-ear cans that drown out the rabble and the squawky bus brakes. Sometimes I find myself sketching out the rough contours of a daydream, wondering through what individualized experience my fellow travelers may be venturing.

Is the girl in the Metal Mulisha shirt indulging her guilty pleasure of vintage Boyz II Men? That portly guy absorbed in beating one of the timed levels in Candy Crush, does he have some rapid-fire J-Pop cranked through his earphones or is he satisfied with the game’s blippy sound effects? That skinny white guy with the dreads who always wears a Phish t-shirt, is he listening to the unbelievable version of “Weekapaug” from the New Year’s Eve 1995 show? Because that performance totally rocked.

Do these silent drones imagine themselves singing and strumming the music in their ears? Are they dancing once more with a lost love? How are they fashioning their completely bottled-in experience? These are the questions that plague a mind that hasn’t learned to shut the hell up. These are the questions which bring me to the Walkman Effect.

Like most of our modern electronic toys, the Sony Walkman first slapped itself over the hungry lobes of Japanese consumers. It makes sense then for the first philosophical study on the technology to have taken place in the same corner of the world. Over at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies, a professor named Shuhei Hosokawa wanted to come up with some sort of theoretical implication of burying oneself in one’s own tuneage.

The year was 1984 and the Walkman had been dispensing grooves to Japanese ears for five years. While the primary questions among medical researchers and fretting moms involved the potential physical damage that might come from over-cranking the Toto in a heated – albeit perfectly rational – appreciation of “Hold The Line”, Hosokawa was a bit more optimistic. He saw the technology as purely liberating, and wholly game-changing.

The first Walkman ever to roll out of Sony in Japan had two headphone jacks and a bright yellow ‘Talk’ button. This was an addition proposed by Sony chairman Akio Morita, who didn’t want his new toy to send kids into isolated cocoons – a worry that turned out to be unavoidable in retrospect. With that first Walkman, two people could share the same song, then push the Talk button and drop the music levels down so that they could communicate. Morita wanted to offer innovation without the need to be rude.

Well, it turns out people generally don’t have a problem with being rude.

Professor Hosokawa paid close attention to the early ads for the Walkman, which featured people skateboarding, riding their bikes, and maybe even sheep-shearing, all with Walkmans hanging off their persons. This freedom, Hosokawa points out, is called the ‘autonomy of the walking self’, and it’s all about making these seemingly regular tasks more interesting, more engaging.

Hosokawa is not alone in his beliefs. Professor Michael Bull at the University of Sussex argues that wearing headphones – and here he’s referring to iPods, but it’s all the same – enables us to control our own space, and exert a greater sense of control over the environment around us. It’s an empowering thing, at least within the context of one’s own solitude. And I get this – mowing the lawn since I put together that fantastic yardwork mix (mostly some Tone Loc and a variety of yacht-rock favorites) has been infinitely more enjoyable. I feel more in control.

But what we’re gaining in a solo experience might be at the expense of a potential connection. A chance encounter with another soul is virtually impossible when one or both of you have tucked little balls of white plastic into your ears. If you’re under 25 years old, there’s a good chance you’ve never known the experience of striking up a conversation with an arbitrary senior citizen on the bus. This is truly a shame; those snippets of visceral connection can turn out to be the best part of an otherwise drab day.

People generally won’t approach someone wearing headphones. The sanctity of that solo journey is usually adhered to. People can escape eye contact in a fleeting beat and allow their attention to be swallowed up by the next verse. With their increased sense of environmental control, they can tune in or tune out whatever fits their personal filter. On the plus side, panhandlers are less likely to bug you as well.

But are we losing our sense of community? While I can say with near certainty that no one else on my morning train is likely to be listening to (and enjoying!) the calculated din of the Beatles’ “Revolution 9”, I am also forbidden by every modern unspoken law of public transit courtesy to share my opinions about the piece with the lady sitting next to me. And that’s fair. If it turns out she’s deeply into Justin Bieber, I’d rather not step into that conversational dinghy anyway.

Yes, it’s a form of narcissism to embed oneself in a solitary fortress of funk. Rainer Schönhammer claims we are violating a universal law, denying ourselves “the certainty of common sensual presence in shared situations”. I think Dr. Schönhammer might want to check out some of the dregs who ride public transit with me, then decide whether or not he wants to enjoy a common sensual presence with these people.

But Schönhammer and Professor Hosokawa both agree, despite this breakdown in chance encounters, despite this loss of collective involvement, the Walkman Effect is generally a positive one. Those linked to their musical libraries are more confident, and generally happier and calmer. The listener may be shut out from the strangers around him, but he or she is still experiencing the world. And the world through this prism is a colorful spectacle, rich in sights and smells, but with the sounds of the listener’s choosing.

Given my inherent loathing of monotony – and also given the fact that it appears to be societally accepted now to answer one’s cell phone on the bus and have a long and loud discussion about the Kardashians with some lecherous ghoul no one else on the bus can see or hear – I’ll happily plug in and turn up the jams.

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