Sony Walkman

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Historical Overview

Sony first released the Walkman personal tape player in 1978. Conceived of as an alterative to the listening practices of the “home stereo,” the Walkman represented a breakthrough in mobile listening equipment, that would allow the once large scale and public experience of listening to music to be reconceptualized on the scale of the individual listener. Accordingly, the Walkman “was originally designed for and marketed to a particular target consumer grouping: mobile, young music listeners.”(du Gay 1997, 66). Interestingly, it was both design and marketing that seemed to most notably set the Walkman apart from previous iterations of personnel listening equipment.

Design and Marketing

While the tradition of mobile audio equipment extends back to the listening practices of the car radio, with its associations of individualism and freedom, the Walkman worked to radically re-associate listening practices with the production of ‘lifestyle’(1997, 66). As a design object, the Walkman was meant to be unobtrusive, sleek, and above all conducive to maximal mobility. To achieve this technically the Sony design team worked tirelessly to convert the bulky audio player technology into something that “would enable people to take their music with them” (1997, 53) wherever they went. ...


As we saw in the previous section, Sony conceived of the Walkman, both in terms of design and marketing, as a way to reach divers consumer groups, but as the popularity of the Walkman grew to encompass a global market Sony was forced to rethink the relatively inflexible system (hierarchical, lifetime employment) of Fordist style manufacturing. On the level of production, this meant moving away from a model of mass produced products, “where particular products were manufactured in large batches on assembly-lines that required great investment in inflexible plants”(1997, 66), towards embracing a new logic of production that required attention to “the combination of responsive design and visual communication with techniques of market segmentation.”(ibid) By developing the Walkman as a global ‘lifestyle’ product, Sony became the leading edge of what has now become the standard mode of “flexible” production:

linked to [then] novel forms of flexible, electronic-based automation technologies… [such] computer-based technologies and a functionally flexible labor force, it [was] common for a particular model to be available in a large number of different versions, each designed for an marketed at a distinct consumer grouping.(de Gay 1997, 66)

By embracing flexible production as a new model for integrating design, marketing, and consumption, Sony adopted a strategy for linking a diversity of previously disparate processes, from product development and production, to marketing and the introduction of the product to the market, into a seamless self generating productive loop. In the respect, the function of both design and marketing where reconceived of as “operating on the very cusp of production and consumption, attempting to stitch the two spheres together.”(1997, 69). Following this model, Sony moved from the production of the original model of the Walkman in 1978, to an expansive line of hundreds of Walkman audio products that where tailored to meet the demands of a continuously shifting spectrum of consumer identities. From this perspective then, the Walkman can be understood as a productive nexus, linking together the divers employment of both symbolic and material practices into a singular ‘brand identity’ (1997, 69).

Sony and Postwar Japan

In May 1946 what would later come to be known as the Sony corporation was founded by Akio Morita as the Tokyo Tsushin Kogyu Kabushiki Kasha (Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering). As the son of a wealthy family who had been prominent in the saki brewing industry, Morita with the help of an initial capital investment from his father, formed the company with Masaru Ibuka, “with whom he had been working with during the war on the design of new types of bombs”(1997, 46). Drawing from his background as a navel technologies officer, Morita first conceived of the Sony cooperation as a means for converting the technical innovations, that he and a number of young Japanese scientists had helped to develop during the course of the Second World War, into civilian technology. Interestingly, the company’s first major break through came in the form of audio technology. After buying the patent to the “transistorized electronic components” in 1947, the two young engineers got to work designing what would in two years time would come together as the worlds first transistor radio (1997, 47). This was then developed into a portable tape recorder and playback device that would prove to be the technical foundation of the Walkman.

As an extension of war time technology into postwar application, the recorder illustrates Rey Chao thesis, regarding postwar Japan, that “Because it [Japan] was forbidden to advance in militarism, postwar Japan specialized in the promotion of science and technology for “peace” and for the consolidation of a “democratic” society. Instead of bombs and missiles, Japan became one of the world’s leading producers of cars, computers, and other types of “high-tech” equipment.”(Age of the World Target, 34) By reversing Japan’s role as the war time “defeated” and “subjugated”, postwar economic development worked to secure Japan’s place in the Cold War logic of economic militarism, effectively allowing the ‘defeated “victim” of the war [to] rise again and rejoin the “victor” in a new competition, the competition in bombarding the world with a different type of implosion—information.’(ibid).

Set within the legacy of the Cold War arms race, the technological development that underpins the development of the Walkman takes on a considerably broader reading. […]

Audio Artillery

As an effective means for “bombarding,” the Walkman might seem like an unlikely technical model. Unlike projective audio equipment such as the gramophone or loudspeaker, which following Adorno’s reading is necessarily public and defining to the effect of ‘numbing the listener into a state of passivity’, the Walkman works to focus sound internally, blocking out the violent collision of the external sonic environment with the human sensorium. In this respect, the Walkman can be read as a “defensive” as opposed to “offensive” mechanism, capable of preemptively isolating the individual from being overwhelmed by a sea of threatening noise. This reductive, monistic withdrawal that the Walkman facilitates illuminates the precise type of bombardment that Chao is referencing in the above statement, namely “implosion”. Analogues to the technical development of the atomic bomb, which allowed for the unprecedented disappearance…, the Walkman functioned by reducing the multiplicity of heterogeneous sonic information into a single harmonious flow of a continuous rhythm. Such a reduction is achieved through what Chao following Susan Stewart calls “miniaturization”(Listening Otherwise…, 139).