I found John Naughton’s column on social spaces, the iPods, and the Walkman (diagnosis: personal technology, beginning with the Walkman, has fundamentally changed how we experience urban space) by browsing past Jason Kottke’s critique (diagnosis: the decay of urban space can be blamed on cars and suburbs, not cool technology).
I agree with Naughton that the self-absorption of iPod users is nothing new, and like Naughton I’ve been tempted to blame the Walkman for changes in social fabrics that we feel, but are difficult to describe . Jason is wrong, and here’s why: The problem that the Walkman created — and a problem that cars and suburbs had little to do with — is the problem of social sound. The Walkman took social sound and made it private. It did this in two ways — the Walkman (and now iPod) user is isolated from surrounding sounds, and the people around the Walkman user are isolated from the sounds coming out of the machine.
Maybe this started even earlier. Remember the boom boxes that some people used to carry around on their shoulders? Hugely annoying, and for the same reasons: people with boom boxes were deliberately indifferent to the social fabric around them. They didn’t want to hear anything else, and no one around them could hear anything else either.
To people who are young enough that they can’t recall a world without the Walkman, or Discman, or iPod, this idea — the idea that sound is social — may seem odd. But older folks get it, and one of the great things about the Internet is that occasionally older folks get to remind younger folks about it, too. John Perry Barlow’s account of an unexpected Net phone call (thanks, Laura, for the pointer) isn’t just about the unexpected intimacy that the Net enables. It’s about the socializing and sociable nature of sound itself. John Perry Barlow’s account wouldn’t be half as interesting if he were describing a text-based chat session. And Internet historians should recall that J.C.R. Licklider, the man usually credited with first envisioning the possibilities of networked computing as we experience it today, was professionally trained in the field of psycho-acoustics. In the psychology of sound, perhaps, Licklider could see the psychology of the network. From the world of sound, in a roundabout way, came the Internet.