Sony Walkman

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The first Walkman model, TPS L2 released in 1978

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. Although the exact origins of the Walkman’s initial design remain shrouded in mystery, some commentators claimed that the idea originally came to Sony founder Akio Morita while noting ‘children’s frustration at not being able to listen to music while traveling’(p.42), while others claimed that it was Masaru Ibuka, head engineer at Sony, who was the real genius behind the product, it was clear that the projection of a new listening ‘lifestyle’ was central to the development of the Walkman. By associating the Walkman with fresh new way of life centered around personnel desire, Sony achieved the development of a product that could embody not only expanded freedoms in personnel choice, but more importantly consumer choice. To listen meant to consume, and to consume meant to produce the ephemeral conditions of life modeled around a constantly evolving field of consumer products. It is in this dimension of the Walkman, that we find the most compelling register of innovation, namely the rethinking of consumption as production. This reworking of the relationship between production and consumption can be expanded to attest to the central role that representations of design and innovation played within the Sony corporation. As du Gay points out, “Design at Sony, it is often claimed, is organized in a way which enables the company to make products which both create and respond to consumer ‘needs’ in a highly flexible manner.”(p.62) By emphasizing the ‘functional’ and ‘occupational’ role of design and designers, Sony worked to expand the role that engineering played within the overall corporate hierarchy, a trend that has only come to be accepted to today as standard mode of organization. Further, by destabilizing the often insurmountable barriers between designers and senior management, Sony worked to foster an environment that could respond quickly and effectively to shifts in market demand. Finally, Sony was organized in such a way as to that “designers are kept closely in touch with contemporary cultural trends with the cultural practices of target consumer groupings”(p.63) Combing these organizational strategies into a coherent framework, Sony stands out as an exemplary case in which design and marketing played a hitherto unprecedented role in producing products which combined both styling and concept in a way that could shift based on consumer demand and market trends, a reflexivity that would have been unthinkable under the more standardized practices of industrial manufacturing.

Culture clash or mutual appreciation? Walkman advertisements often played with stereotypes as a means for "including" everyone as a potential consumer

Similarly, the advertisements that seemed to proliferate wildly after the release of the Walkman, attest to Sony’s aggressive repositioning of ‘lifestyle’ and ‘brand’ as the centerpieces of the new consumer experience. While the initial Japanese language advertisements tended to focus on expressing the Walkman’s typically “Japanese” character, as a cutting edge piece of technology that embodies the best in “high-tech”. But as the Walkman progressively became a fixture of global culture, Sony moved to expand their branding strategies in accordance with the potentially unlimited difference of the global market. Often the concept of ‘youth’ came to play a predominate role in many of Sony’s more classic adds. Most importantly though, the theme of product multiplicity stood as the center piece of many Walkman adds, displaying the sheer verity of models that the consumer had to choose from. By emphasizing consumer driven design and hip sensibility, Sony played a pivotal role in developing much of the branding and lifestyle marketing that is central to the success of contemporary consumer products.


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-Postwar Japan-Audio Artillery

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. 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 reduction of life to a pile of entropic dust, the Walkman functioned by reducing the multiplicity of heterogeneous sonic information into a single harmonious frame of experience. As Chow goes on to note, “the dropping of the bombs marked the pivot of the progress of science, a pivot which was to continue its impact on all aspects of human life long after the Second World War was over.”(2006, 29). In this regards, both the bomb and the Walkman, as both representing and furthering the “pivot” noted above, can be traced along a progressive lineage where science increasingly comes to be “experienced daily as the practically useful, in the form of miniscule, convenient, matter-of-fact operations that the lay person can manipulate at his or her fingertips… Our daily use of the light switch, the television, the computer, the cell phone, and other types of devices are all examples of this paradoxical situation of scientific advancement, in which the portentous—what Heidegger calls “the gigantic”—disappears into the mundane, the effortless, and the intangible.”(p.29;emphasis in original). Such a scalar reduction of the sublimely large to the graspable at hand quality of modern technology is achieved through what Chao following Susan Stewart, has elsewhere called “miniaturization”(Chao 1990, 139). Returning to the specificity of the Walkman, we are told “In contrast to the gramophone and the loudspeaker, without which the ‘gigantic’ history of the public would not have been possible, the Walkman ushers in the history of [the] miniaturized.”(1990, 139). Among the most important characteristics of this shrinking is the production of a new form of equivalence, where the previously mimetic field of representation is reconceived in terms of the scalar, metonymic ‘correspondence between the thing and the thing of which it is a miniature’(1990, 139).As a new field of action, the miniature opens up a the possibility of revolutionary praxis at the literal press of a button, as Chow remarks “The miniature is the labor of multiplying and intensifying significance microscopically.”(p.139). This leads to the more general point about the Walkman that revels its true political potential:

Insofar as Walkman music is shrunken music, music reduced to the size of the little portable machine that produces it, it is a kind of miniature. But the most important feature of music’s miniaturization does not lie in the smallness of the equipment which generates it. Rather, it lies in the revolution in listening engendered by the equipment: while the music is hidden from others because it is compacted, this hiddenness is precisely what allows me to hear it full blast. The ‘miniaturization’ that does not produce a visible body—however small—that corresponds with ‘reality’ leads to a certain freedom. This is the freedom to be deaf to the loudspeakers of history.”(Chow 1990, 139; emphasis in original).

What the Walkman reveals to the user is the potential, and danger, inherent in the progressive miniaturization of life under modern science: “the mixture of danger and saving power, to paraphrase Heidegger quotation from Holderlin”(Chambers 1990, 141). While on the one hand, the Walkman provides the positive “possibility of a barrier, a blockage between ‘me’ and the world, so that, as in moments of undisturbed sleep, I can disappear as a listener playing music. The Walkman allows me, in other words, to be missing—to be a missing part of history”(Chow 1990, 140). On the other hand the Walkman, as a technological afterimage of two devastating flashes of destruction that marked the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, also corresponds to another more troubling logic, the logic of instrumental reason through which war has “become not the cessation of normality, but rather, the very definition of normality itself. The space and time of war are no longer segregated in the form of an other; instead, they operate from within the here and now, as the internal logic of the here and now. From being negative blockade to being normal routine, war becomes the positive mechanism, momentum, and condition of possibility of society, creating a hegemonic space of global communication through powers of visibility and control.”(Chow 2006, 34)