Space Music: Did Walkmans kill manned space exploration?


I've been thinking about this since a fellow traveler mentioned it over vacation.

"No one wants to go into space anymore," he said. "It all started with the Walkman. The kids all slipped on headphones and retreated inward."

I'm paraphrasing a little there and I should stress that no one's implying that the rise in headphone usage directly links to the public's decreased interest in space exploration. But the notion still keeps kicking around my skull. What changed in us when the Walkman swept across the world?

As it turns out, there's a term for what all these iPods and noise-canceling ear buds have wrought: the walkman effect. The term first emerged in the writings of Japan's Shuhei Hosokawa around 1984, stirred in part by the work of French writer Philippe Sollers.

Sollers interviewed young people about how the use of headphones altered their perceptions of others, humanity's future and outside reality. The reply? Here's how Hosokawa laid it out in his 1984 Journal of Popular Music article:

"Your question is out-of-date. All of these problems of communication and incommunicability ... belong to the sixties and the seventies. The eighties are not the same at all. [These] are the years of autonomy, of an intersection of singularities in the construction of discourses. Soon ... you will have every kind of film on video at home, every kind of classical music on only one tape. This is what gives me pleasure."

French teens were REALLY into their headphones, yeah?

Psychologist Rainer Schönhammer expounded on the walkman effect a bit more in his 1989 article "The Walkman and the Primary World of the Senses." Here's how he laid out his own experience wearing headphones:

"[The music] literally colors the visual world. Furthermore, the outside world profoundly alters its character; it is perceived like a film ... The subject speaks of his feeling of being outside reality while at the same time being aware of living in this reality. When he adds that he gains a calmer attitude to time and space, he makes us understand the significance of his experience of simultaneous absence and presence. Absence does not mean that the world is no longer worth attention. On the contrary, the subject's disengagement sets him free to enjoy the world attentively as a colorful and rich spectacle. His being-in-the world shifts from that of the participant to that of the spectator."

Let's hit that last quote again: "His being-in-the world shifts from that of the participant to that of the spectator."

I love my ear buds. I wear them on the train to and from work and they're plugged into my skull through most of the workday. I'm wearing them now in fact, streaming in a mix by -- let me check -- ah, Ricardo Tobar.

But am I partaking of an experience that robbed humanity of something vital? Have our headphones, Walkmans and ear buds turned us inward into a cybernetic species of cosmic spectators instead of the adventurous dreamers we once were? And what would Cyborg Dr. Dre have to say about this?

I guess I'll crank some tunes and think it over.

As always, you can find the Stuff to Blow Your Mind podcast on iTunes, Zune and the RSS feed and be sure to check out the other Space Music posts.

Skull still intact? Follow Robert and Julie for more mind-blowing science on Twitter and Facebook.


About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.