Tuesday, June 30, 2009

These Boots Were Made for Walkmen

Here's a thought experiment: what if you handed a contemporary 13-year-old a vintage Sony Walkman from the late 1970s/early 1980s? Would he be able to figure out how it worked? The BBC (via Gizmodo) has an article on just such an experiment.

For all of you who have a tough time figuring out new technology, take heart (or be downright smug) that today's kids have (or at least this one had) a tough time figuring out old technology. Even the humble cassette tape itself posed problems:
It took me three days to figure out that there was another side to the tape. That was not the only naive mistake that I made; I mistook the metal/normal switch on the Walkman for a genre-specific equaliser, but later I discovered that it was in fact used to switch between two different types of cassette.
Actually, I remember when a Walkman that had an auto-reverse feature (i.e., the head flips around at the end of a tape and plays the other side automatically) came out, I thought that was the greatest thing ever.

He did learn that one of the limitations of analog tape was the inability to shuffle songs:
But I managed to create an impromptu shuffle feature simply by holding down "rewind" and releasing it randomly - effective, if a little laboured.
I told my dad about my clever idea. His words of warning brought home the difference between the portable music players of today, which don't have moving parts, and the mechanical playback of old. In his words, "Walkmans eat tapes". So my clumsy clicking could have ended up ruining my favourite tape, leaving me music-less for the rest of the day.
I do recall that any tape length longer than 90 minutes (like the 120-minute ones) tended to get eaten anyway. But since most albums were under 45 minutes long (the limitations of vinyl), one 90-minute cassette could hold two albums. I used to obsessively record all my vinyl LPs on cassette--to play on my Walkman, of course. Just like I now obsessively rip all my CDs to play on my iPod. Technology changes, but behavior doesn't.

Next we'll have to give this kid a rotary dial phone--with a cord and everything--which may very well blow his mind.

Yes, the magnetic audio tape has gone the way of the VHS tape--and some years ago automakers stopped even including tape decks in new cars, a fact I only discovered about five years ago when I rented a car and had no place to insert my iPod tape deck adapter, which never worked well anyway. (In cold weather it would constantly eject itself.) In fact, the only reason I bought a new car a couple years ago was for a direct iPod jack. (And decent cupholders.) Any other car feature is pretty much wasted on me, since I hate driving.

Still, as someone who had his share of Walkmen over the course of the 80s and 90s (and seized on the iPod from Day 1 as far superior), I can't help but think that, in 30 years, the iPod will probably be seen as quaint and nostalgic, and the 13-year-olds of 2039 will likely be hard-pressed to figure out how it works. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

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