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When the Walkman was Banned
Once headphones were controversial, heavily regulated wearable tech
Surrendering an entire sensory input to wearable technology has always elicited strong responses: from Google Glass, to Oculus Rift and most recently Apple Vision Pro. How silly. How isolating! How dystopian!? Right?
Well… it turns out most of us have already surrendered an entire sensory input to wearable technology: headphones. We don them in public without shame or ridicule, but it wasn’t always this way…
In the 1980s Sony’s Walkman™ - a product which made headphones small and light enough for everyday use - was as peculiar and controversial as more recent vision based headsets and elicited similarly strong responses.
As the device began to infiltrate public life, the reactions it provoked ranged from laughter to moral panic. People suddenly had the power to augment their reality and partially escape the one we all share, what did it mean?
The hand-ringing neo-puritan public intellectuals would lead the conversation and weave a dystopian narrative, some said it was a sign of a continued rise of Reagan and Thatcher style individualism. Other takes were amusingly summed up in a 1999 Reason article: Cultural critic Allan Bloom deemed the Walkman "a nonstop... masturbational fantasy." Neo-Luddite John Zerzan saw the Walkman as part of a modern trend that encouraged a "protective sort of withdrawal from social connections" and Thomas Lipscomb, chief of the Center for the Digital Future, equated it with the euphoric drug "soma," from Huxley's Brave New World, creating, as he put it, "an airtight bubble of sound" that was nothing but a "sensory depressant."
The Walkman, critics claimed, was more than just music to one's ears; it was a tool of societal disconnect and intellectual stunting. A danger on the roads, an enemy to learning and a threat to health.
Numerous states from coast to coast, unnerved by the rise of the Walkman, swiftly put into effect or contemplated restrictions, particularly targeting individuals who dared to drive or cycle while engrossed in their own personal symphonies.
But it was the New Jersey township of Woodbridge went a step further, forbidding not just driving or biking, but even crossing the street while accompanied by a Walkman's melodies. The price for breaking this prohibition? A potential two-week stay in jail and a fine. The law made national and international news, include the BBC who got reactions on the street:
The day the law was put into effect, Oscar Gross, a retiree from a neighboring town, was spurred into action. Seething with indignation, he approached Sergeant Lou Monzo, purposefully donned his headphones, and sauntered across the street.
The outcome of this small act of civil disobedience? Gross became the first person legally penalized for wearing headphones, even though they weren’t plugged into anything. Undeterred, he boldly stated in an interview, "I’m prepared to go to jail for 15 days just to prove a point." He’d end up being interviewed on national TV shows.
However, to his disappointment, he was not sent to jail. After the judge imposed a $50 fine, which was later suspended, a frustrated Gross expressed to a journalist, "He didn't even give me the opportunity to say that I was willing to serve time in jail."
Oscar’s son said he was preparing to take the case all the way the supreme court, but backed out after someone was killed crossing the street while wearing a walkman. The kind of tragic anecdote that is the inevitable price of freedom. In 2023, headphones have evolved to the point they let vehicular sound in.
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