Robert Lamb also co-hosts the "Stuff to Blow Your Mind" podcast and blog.
Where are you in time and space? (Piotr Powietrzynski /Getty Images)
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"Your question is out-of-date.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.
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?
I guess I'll crank some tunes and think it over.
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