The Pace of Sonic Spatial Construction

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There are few feelings as unique but universally shared among digital natives as the absolute frustration and dread accompanying the realization that one has forgotten their headphones and must face the day without them. No morning news podcast, no tuning out beggars, buskers, solicitors, classmates and coworkers, no evening workout playlist; just you and the world, painfully unfiltered.  

Hyperbole aside, it’s undeniable that headphones have become an essential item to most of us, such a consistent companion to our day-to-day that we are often thrown surprisingly off-balance by their absence.  How is it that routine daily commutes and experiences can suddenly take on such an unfamiliar tinge?

Portable listening can trace its roots past the iPhone and iPod, beyond the Discman and back to the original Sony Walkman. Adapted from Sony’s journalism-orientated portable tape recorders in 1979, the Walkman meant that listeners were no longer confined to their homes and cars – the personal listening bubble could now be constructed anywhere one wished. Naturally, the expression for the portable listening environment created by the Walkman has been dubbed the “Walkman Effect”. 

We owe the concept of the Walkman Effect to a 1984 article written by Shuhei Hosokawa for Popular Science Magazine. Hosokawa saw the Walkman as the harbinger of a new “urban strategy” dictated by the individual. He describes the Walkman listener as existing in “the world of listening to music alone”; a minimal, discrete unit not subject to the involuntary and semi-voluntary shared auditory experiences of the urban environment. Furthermore, he asserts that by signaling the act of listening to something, the Walkman generates a “secret theater” of sorts. The headphone user does not simply exclude themselves from shared auditory space, they instead conjure their own space, the existence of which they reveal to all while simultaneously allowing entrance to none. 

The silent theater of private listening has since driven the technological development of both the headphone and the music player apparatus. Variations in size, visibility and auditory properties have all been enacted in the name of controlling the nature of the personal listening experience and the visibility of that experience. Internal improvements began modestly; upgrades for the sake of fidelity were accompanied by basic functions such as auto-rewind and an AM/FM tuner. However, it is important to note that Sony’s designers set about making the Walkman visible from the beginning. Early advertisements and product demos featured young people running, dancing, cycling and roller-skating with the Walkman as a companion. This trend took a massive leap in 1988 with the iconic safety-yellow Walkman WM-B52 Sport. This classic model featured a solar powered watch and was essentially a paired down version of Sony’s ultra-rugged (and expensive) fully solar-powered offering.  The design philosophy of the late 80’s Walkman models would eventually take a back seat to function as the CD, Minidisc and flash storage pushed quality forward quickly.

Hosokawa’s secret theater has become a portable digital universe; to which the headphone is just one of many points of access.

Once the dust settled in the mid-00’s, the flashy, personality-centric marketing of the Walkman manifested itself in the iPod Nano and its ill-fated competition, the Microsoft Zune. The iPod continued pushing and marketing around a vibrant, highly visible, listening experience. Apple adopted Sony’s marketing strategy, incorporating well-choreographed dance routines into colorful visuals; a technique still used by Apple and others today. Driven by modern consumerism, increasing variations in feature-set and appearances, paired with almost always upbeat marketing, cast the headphone – media player as a vessel through which one could both access and display an exclusive individuality.  The increasing consumer interest for portable listening pushed forward development of speakers, touchscreens, flash memory and mobile battery technology. These building blocks ultimately laid the foundations for the most trans-formative invention of our age: the smartphone.

Despite its predecessors, the release of the iPhone in 2007 undeniably shifted portable electronics from a luxury to a necessity. Apple and Google have since sought to bring their mobile operating systems into our lives wherever and whenever possible.  The two mobile OS behemoths share a common design objective: develop a linked network of products through which users can control as many aspects of their lives as possible. The smartphone has become idealized as an extension of the self, effortlessly connecting the user to the world. 

Hosokawa’s secret theater has become a portable digital universe; to which the headphone is just one of many points of access. Internally, Bluetooth, active noise canceling, digital EQs and on-headphone controls keep our connections to this digital world hands-free. Meanwhile, externally, users now have their choice of thousands of products specialized to assist in embodying whichever brand of individuality they’d like: from around-ear sport headphones for the most active of us to muted over-ear noise canceling headphones for the more contemplative of us; not to mention Apple’s signature in-ear airpods for the trendy and connected.  The merger of media player and communication device has opened a door into our portable sonic spaces alongside the wider construction of personal electronic spaces, so much so that the chief function of the media player – accurately recreating music – has been supplanted in many cases by other elements. 

The headphone-smartphone apparatus is more malleable than ever. It is the filter through which we shape our soundscapes. Through these devices we substitute blaring car horns and creaky train car brakes with gripping stories, quality education and promising morning playlists. We replace the sounds of our lungs grasping for air with deep bass at the exact BPM necessary to push through the last mile. The advances of solicitors are rebuffed by a private conversation with a good friend accessed via voice command, meanwhile, noise canceling listens to the world for you and produces the negative frequencies necessary to spare one from hearing an off-key accordion rendition of ‘Despacito’ that, frankly, no one asked for. 

As valuable as these freedoms can be to our wellness, comfort and sanity, there is also something lost through this control; the act of choosing what we accept into our constructed sonic temporaries inherently means rejecting much of the urban environment. It means saying no to the glimpses into the lives of strangers gained by bits of overheard conversation; no to the homeless man hoping to collect enough change to buy a meal, no to the sirens, to faint tune played by the trumpeter on the other side of the park, to the passing car radio and other various noises that constitute an urban landscape. Furthermore, we do this visibly; through their use, our headphones signal to the world that for better or worse, ‘Old Town Road’ and Serial take precedent over whatever sonic opportunities we might otherwise encounter everyday.

Originally published in 2020 in issue #1 of Texture Magazine