Today’s critics say that smartphones separate us. We no longer make the kind of in-person human connections that we once did, they say. Well…
In this episode, take a trip back to the 1980s — when the portable cassette player was accused of turning people into “wind-up non-humans,” laws were passed to keep them on the streets, and one New Jersey man risked jail time for his right to walk with headphones.
Jason Feifer: Welcome to the first episode of Pessimists Archive. My name is Jason Feifer. The Atlantic Magazine once asked, "is Google making us stupid?" A recent New York times piece proclaimed that, "smartphones were leading to the end of reflection." That was the headline, by the way, the end of reflection, like a core part of what makes us human is now coming to a halt. Academic and author, Sherry Turkle, and her 2012 TED Talk said this:
Voice Clip (She...: Those little devices in our pockets are so psychologically powerful that they don't only change what we do, they change who we are.
Jason Feifer: This is one of the defining conversations of our time. It feels more than important. It feels critical like right now, as we experienced a level of technology that humanity has never seen, we are on the verge of changing from something we've always been, into something we cannot imagine. But here's the thing, you know what we've actually always been doing? We've always been expressing this fear, always. Go back hundreds of years and you'll see the Sherry Turkle's of yesterday saying things like, "these telephones we installed in our homes, these bicycles, we're all writing these novels we read at night..."
Voice Clip (She...: Don't only change what we do, they change who we are.
Jason Feifer: We all know how those turned out. The phone, the bicycle, the novel. We love them! The fear surrounding them were foolish! And so it's worth asking why do we repeat ourselves like this? Why do we always say no, no, no, no, no, no, no. This time is different. This time we're in real danger. Why can't we trust our own history? That's what the show is about.
In each episode, we'll revisit the moment that a new technology totally freaked people out. And we'll try to understand what was going on. Why the fear? And why didn't we learn anything from it? Because the way we see it, the best antidote to fear of the new is looking back a fear of the old. And so we begin with a technology that paved the way for what you're probably doing right now. You have a little device in your pocket, tiny speakers in your ears, and you're choosing to tune out the world and listen to me instead. Thanks! The technology is the Walkman and by 1982, people were really concerned.
Voice Clip: Critics of the Walkman say the headset mindset excludes the outside world.
Voice Clip: The negative effect of the Sony Walkman is very much like the effect of television. People can be in the midst of others and still be separated from them.
Jason Feifer: In fact, people were so worked up that cities across America were considering new laws to keep the gadget off their streets. The first one to go big was Woodbridge, New Jersey and its law sparked a civil disobedience that became national news.
Fran Jugon: The next thing I knew my children were telling me that Tommy's father is going to go downtown on Woodbridge and walk with these Walkman headphones on. And I said to them, you're kidding me. And they said, no.
Jason Feifer: That is Fran Jugon. On October 7th of 1982, her friend, Oscar, Tommy's father went to the corner of Main and Amboy Avenues in Woodbridge, approached a traffic officer, put his son's earphones over his head and according to the newspapers at the time, he said, "okay, here I am. What are you going to do?" And then Oscar walked across the street and became famous. But understand how or why any of this even happened. We have to step back three years, to 1979, when the Sony Walkman debut.
Rebecca Tuhus-D...: I just remember sitting on the plane to New York, with the film guys, the sound engineers and the rest of it, passing this little machine around.
Jason Feifer: Design historian, Steven Bayley. in the late 1970s, he was working on a TV show for the BBC and he and the crew were flying to New York. One of the producers had a pre-production version of the Walkman.
Rebecca Tuhus-D...: I remember passing this thing around the cabin of the plane from London to New York and people being absolutely slack-jawed and boggle-eyed in wonder that you would get such a quality of sound out of such a thing.
Jason Feifer: Every part of it was revolutionary. It was arguably the first mainstream wearable technology since the wristwatch. Its headphones were said to be only 17% of the weight of other headphones on the market. And for the first time someone could just take their music wherever they wanted. And in 1979, when Sony released the Walkman in Japan, it made perfect sense there.
Rebecca Tuhus-D...: The Japanese live in a very crowded island. They're very disciplined about their space. I don't know if you've been to Tokyo-
Voice Clip (CBS...: I have.
Rebecca Tuhus-D...: But it's a very crowded city. I mean, people have to make huge emotional and psychological efforts to create their personal space for themselves. And it was a tool which helped create that.
Jason Feifer: The Walkman was really born out of that sense of Japanese personal space. But by 1980, it had migrated to America where it made a little less sense. It was a curiosity at first, there was this great anecdote in the New York Times in 1980, describing this guy, Josh and a young blonde woman passing each other on Madison avenue. And they're both wearing their Walkmans. She waves and smiles and he tips his headphones like it's a hat. And then Josh tells the Times, quote, "it's just like Mercedes-Benz owners honking when they pass each other on the road" end quote. But by 1982, there was a Walkman in one out of every 11 American homes. Sony was on its way to selling what would ultimately be 400 million Walkmen around the world. And a generation of young people were now just covering their ears to the sounds of their own choosing. By this point, the Walkman had stopped seeming so cute. Now it was starting to feel like an invasion.
I've spent a long time reading newspaper articles about the Walkman from the 1980s. And they're just amazing specimens. They capture this raging culture war in a way that I just don't think any other medium does. And I want you to hear some of it. So, I asked a man of the theater to help out.
Isaac Butler: Hi, I'm Isaac Butler. I'm a writer and director, and I'll be your voice of panic for today.
Jason Feifer: All right. So, a lot of these are wire service stories, which means that they ran in multiple newspapers at once. I'm going to identify the source and then the paper that I saw them in with the date. So the first is a UPI story from the Reading Eagle of Pennsylvania, November 30th, 1981.
Bob Green: You've already seen the symptoms, the straight ahead stare, the Mona Lisa smile crossing faintly moving lips, the rhythmic gait usually reserved for dance floors and a voracious appetite for fresh batteries. There has been a certain amount of backlash. Some critics predict personal stereos, when there are enough of them in circulation, will kill the art of conversation.
Jason Feifer: All right. And now here's columnist Bob Green in the Chicago Tribune, August 24th, 1981 under the headline, First Drug Abuse, Now Your Phone Abuse.
Bob Green: Maybe the Walkman is a valuable appliance to use on the streets of New York, where it is becoming as common a site as strewn garbage. And maybe it is a soothing addition to the roller skating lanes of Southern California, where young tan people use it to set the cruising speed of their skate wheels. But the Walkman at the Ohio State Fair? I am shocked and dismayed. When teenagers have reached the point where they feel they must shut out the sounds of the Ohio State Fair, society is surely ready to collapse.
Jason Feifer: Here's a Gannett News Service piece that ran in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle of New York, December 24th, 1982.
Bob Green: Some social psychologists say millions of people walking the streets with earphones and antennae protruding from their heads signify more than a new entertainment craze. They say people may be using Walkmen to block out unpleasant thoughts about life at work or in the case of shy people, to turn inward. So basic social skills need will be learned.
Jason Feifer: And quoted inside. That Gannett story is Philip Zimbardo a name you might recognize, he was the psychologist most famous for creating the Stanford Prison Experiment. And he said:
Philip Zimbardo: The Sony Walkman phenomenon is clearly a socially isolating one like video games. An aspect of modern technology that makes people irrelevant for other people.
Jason Feifer: By the way, reached out to Zimbardo to see if he still agreed with what he said and he sent the following statement through his assistant. I'll just read it and full quote; "I think my 1982 statement was rather prescient. Our ever expanding level of reliance on technology is creating ever more invisible barriers for people to people, real face time that are replaced by virtual reality encounters with our avatars. This is especially so for young males everywhere, whose growing addiction to video gaming and online porn engagement renders everything and everyone else boring and irrelevant."
So we'll leave that there, I suppose. And finally, from the Milwaukee Journal, September 23rd, 1982 is this column by a local graduate student at the University of Wisconsin. It's titled Headsets Tune Out Life Itself.
Voice Clip (Headsets Tune Out Life Itself): I can't see how any reasonably sane, moderately intelligent human being could be duped into buying a Sony Walkman. Yet, hundreds of apparently mindless consumers have greedily gobbled up this technological toy, without the slightest thought as to whether it will improve their lives.
Jason Feifer: I also managed to reach that author. He's now the Dean of family ministry at a Christian prep school in Texas. And he wrote me to say quote; "I think the op-ed piece you discovered is the work of an adolescent ranting about whatever he can not understand."
Now to be fair, not everyone in newspapers was anti Walkman in 1982, the columnist Mary McGrory wrote a column with the headline Ear Plugging is Epidemic, but she saw the bright side here it is quote; "the Walkman wearer maybe rejecting me, but he is not subjecting me to his taste. As is the carrier of the suitcase size transistor radio." End quote. So, there's your vote for the Walkman.
Hey, it's not as bad as that jerk with the boombox. So, okay. America is having a lot of trouble adjusting to the Walkman. And obviously this has become much more than a culture clash with Japan. Looking back, we can see that America was actually having a culture clash with itself and the Walkman wasn't the problem. It was a symptom.
Rebecca Tuhus-D...: The eighties certainly was seen as this age of individualism following the sixties, which was seen as more idealistic and collectivist.
Jason Feifer: This is writer Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow. She has a book coming out next year called Personal Stereo, which is a cultural history of the Walkman. And she says it's important to understand the era that the Walkman appeared in. You had Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher steering the culture away from collectivism and towards individualism. You had yuppies obsessed with self-improvement and young people who felt free to just be singularly focused on whatever interested them. And both yuppies and the kids loved the Walkman. That made the Walkman this perfect symbol of cultural change. It was like all the fears and anxieties and an entirely new set of cultural values, all compressed into this little device.
Rebecca Tuhus-D...: There are these different permutations of the idea of individualism. But this was sort of about the lack of a feeling of larger responsibility to a community or society.
Jason Feifer: I mean, if we were to summarize what the cranky people from the fifties wanted-
Rebecca Tuhus-D...: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jason Feifer: Is it basically like, "hey, stop tuning everybody out because we're a group, we're a culture and a community. And you're ripping that apart by being so individualistic?"
Rebecca Tuhus-D...: Yeah. I think that's part of it. Just that there's something unsettling about sharing. And we may not notice this as much anymore because we're so accustomed to it, but there's something unsettling about sharing space with other people, but not sharing the full experience of being in that space with them. So I think that's part of what people were reacting to because it was such a new... That was such a new phenomenon at the time.
Jason Feifer: Even though sharing that space was often... Sharing that space often sucked, right? Didn't it? It must've sucked. If I'm honest, if I'm on a train-
Rebecca Tuhus-D...: Yeah.
Jason Feifer: I don't want to share that space with those people. I just want to get where I'm going.
Rebecca Tuhus-D...: Yeah.
Jason Feifer: What am I going to do? Talk to them?
There's this phrase we like to kick around in America; national debate, we're having a national debate. And that is what was going on, but it also moved people to action in tangible local ways. And that is how we come back to Woodbridge, New Jersey hotspot of the Walkman wars.
Voice Clip (CBS...: Until now few people have thought of Woodbridge Township, New Jersey as a place where they make key decisions that could affect all of our lifestyles for years to come, which only shows that a lot of us have a lot to learn.
Jason Feifer: That's from a CBS news report that brought viewers into little Woodbridge. It's a main street USA kind of place where you could find a mom and pop pharmacy, lots of open land and the nation's most restrictive ban on listening to music on the go.
At least nine states that year had banned headphones while driving. But Woodbridge went further than anyone else. If you were crossing the street on foot, biking or driving a car and you had headphones over your ears, you'd be subject to a $50 fine and possibly 15 days in jail. And after the law was proposed, the town became swarmed with media. In that CBS piece, a reporter finds a teenager, rocking out to his Walkman and it goes over and sticks a camera in his face and asks how long he's had the thing. And of course the kid can't hear her, which I guess was the point.
Voice Clip: What?
Voice Clip (CBS...: David Miskiw couldn't hear us because he had the volume on his cassette player turned all the way up to nine.
Jason Feifer: Ladies and gentlemen, I give you; got your journalism from the eighties.
Robert Gawronia...: We were getting calls because we were the first to initiate something of this type. And of course, having ear phones on was something brand new and having what they call the Walkman at the time.
Jason Feifer: That's Robert Gawroniak, who helped pass the ban. And the way he sees it, Woodbridge was just focused on public safety.
Robert Gawronia...: CBS News wanted me on one morning and I had to go to New York.
Voice Clip (CBS...: Fast. Now is Robert Gawroniak, president of the Woodbridge Township council. Good morning to you.
Robert Gawronia...: Good morning, Diane.
Voice Clip (CBS...: I can understand Mr. Gawroniak, a lot of people thinking these headsets are of an offense to common humanity, but this is a very dire action. What provoked it such draconian behavior?
Robert Gawronia...: Well, we have seen many near misses in Woodbridge and the craze is growing so fast that we thought it was now time to take some steps to stop the use of these earphones, the dual stereo systems.
Jason Feifer: In the early eighties, a couple of people across America had been hit by cars while wearing Walkmen and each incident fueled fears that headphones were putting people into physical danger. But Woodbridge wasn't the scene of any of those accidents. Nobody in town had been hurt by wearing the Walkman. So why Woodbridge? Why this place this time? I talked to a few people who lived there and they described it as a town in transition.
Ken Gardner: It be the late seventies where we had a lot of development in the Township and then going into the eighties, there were a lot of condo developments, certainly adding a lot more congestion.
Jason Feifer: This is Ken Gardner who was Woodbridge's Town Council President from 1992 to 1995. And if you've ever been to a town zoning board meeting where they're debating stuff like this, and I definitely have, because I was a newspaper reporter... Oh, I sat through so many of them. You know what this debate means. It's people talking about how roads will become too crowded and dangerous. And the character of the town will change. And well, basically all the stuff that makes your town pretty primed for the kinds of fears that the Walkman had come to represent.
Ken Gardner: And I certainly remember that the condo developments were a major issue because the mayoral candidate that I was supporting at the time, when I was in high school, actually won. And trying to stop some big developments were probably one of the main reasons he won.
Jason Feifer: Spoiler alert, the town couldn't stop the condos. Here's a little secret, by the way, you can never truly stop the condos.
Ken Gardner: That's kind of a, almost a losing battle to a certain degree.
Jason Feifer: It was a potent mix, a nation torn between generations, a town fearing for its identity and into all of this walks Oscar Gross. The man we mentioned at the top of the show, the guy who would become the first person to be legally punished for wearing a Walkman.
Oscar was basically the neighborhood dad. He was a World War II army vet. And after his wife passed away in 1978, he retired from his job at Woolworth's Department Store to take care of his 14 year old son, Tommy. Their house was always full of Tommy's friends. He'd take them to baseball games and he had this massive baseball card collection that all the kids talked about.
Fran Jugon: And the house they lived in, he had a room where it was basically a game room. He had a pool table in there and all kinds of things for the boys to be able to do. And he would rather see, like I said, he would rather see them there in the house than be on the streets somewhere and get into trouble.
Jason Feifer: That's Oscar's friend Fran again. Her kids were friends with Oscar's son and they all lived in Perth Amboy, a town next to Woodbridge. At the time Oscar wasn't known for being an agitator, but the Walkman ban just set them off. The way he saw it, it was unconstitutional. And also it was just playing silly.
I mean, to be technical about it, the ban wasn't about the Walkman in particular, it was about any headphones over your ears while you're in the street. But what if the music is paused? Like, what if nothing is coming out of those headphones? Then it's just a piece of plastic on your head. How could that be illegal? And so on the day that the ban went into effect, he went to test it. Like I said before, he walked up to that cop, put his headphones on and said, what are you going to do? And then he walked across the street.
Fran Jugon: When I asked him about it, he said, "I don't even have the headphones on, it wasn't connected to anything. And they gave me a ticket anyway."
Jason Feifer: Shortly after Oscar appeared on Good Morning America and the Phil Donahue show quote, "I'm prepared to go to jail for 15 days, just to prove a point." He told the associated press and he promised to appeal his ticket as high up the court system, as he could go.
So he kept it going pretty long. He had-
Fran Jugon: Oh yeah. He was ready to file a lawsuit. He was drafting up the papers on his own.
Jason Feifer: Did people in the town eventually think he was a little nuts?
Fran Jugon: No, no. It wound up after a while, when people had a problem they couldn't get done, they went to him to ask him what to do.
Jason Feifer: In fact, Fran is convinced that after all this local agitating, Woodbrige officials had it in for Oscar. She recalls one night when one of her kids, along with Oscar' son, Tommy, and a couple of their friends were driving through Woodbridge and a cop pulled them over. Fran, got a call from her kid and then drove out to watch what happened.
Fran Jugon: And the cops are pushing these kids around and handling them. And I thought to myself, you're barking up the wrong tree.
Jason Feifer: After the cops let the kids go, Fran drove to the police station and lodged a complaint. The cops then called Oscar.
Fran Jugon: I went over to Oscar and I told him "that was me." He said, "you're kidding." I said, "no." He said, "you created the start and they blamed it on me." I said, "oh well." But he said he was basically glad that I was sticking up for the kids.
Jason Feifer: Oscar passed away a few years later. I did manage to reach Tommy. Now, Thomas he's since moved to Florida and says, he's working two jobs and was too busy to talk. But he sent me a really nice letter. And a part of it was this quote; "my dad was one of the coolest people on earth. He helped everybody in the neighborhood. At his wake, the governor of Jersey showed up to pay his respect." End quote.
And Thomas wrote his dad's protest did come to an end. Shortly before his court date, a 15 year old boy in a nearby town was killed when he walked into traffic while wearing a Walkman. That was heartbreaking to Oscar and he dropped his court appeal and praised Woodbridge's ban.
You know, I'll admit as a guy who's predisposed to not fearing technology, I want a cleaner version of this history. One in which Oscar was right the whole time and the town eventually looked silly for overreacting. But then again, I'd also want a history in which new teenagers were killed by walking into traffic. The truth of it is change is complicated. The Walkman was dangerous to some people before we learned to adjust to it. And it did alter the way that we interact with the environment. You can see it every day with a sidewalk full of silent people. You know what Sherry Turkle would say? The things like the Walkman;
Voice Clip (She...: Don't only change what we do, they change who we are.
Jason Feifer: But is it that simple? Now, we can look back on the past three decades and see that the change we experienced, wasn't a wholesale one. We didn't swap out a world of shared experiences and serendipity and replace it with a cold world of uncaring strangers. We simply had a new kind of private experience if we wanted it, even when we were in public. We had personal time and social time. We had that before the Walkman and we had it after the way we spent that time just looked a little different. That's not quite the same as changing who we are.
The Woodbridge ban is still on the books by the way. But Kim Gardener told me that it's never enforced. The cops have better things to do. And Robert Gawroniak, the town council president that passed the ban, told me that he never did buy a Walkman. But now that he's seen the future, 34 years after that ban, he admits it might've been a bit much.
Robert Gawronia...: It is amusing because we, we have matured in our thinking.
Jason Feifer: And yet today he sees new things to be concerned about. You've surely heard this stuff before, they're the widely shared fears of today that iPhones and smartphones are ruining people's attention spans and even our ability to have conversations with each other. He watches his grandkids text each other from across the room and you can understand how weird that can seem to someone who didn't grow up with this technology.
Robert Gawronia...: It's changing the way people grow up and the way they act. Communication. They're going to find there's some hidden problems with all this individualism.
Jason Feifer: But here's an interesting... It's interesting that you say that because we're talking about a ban on something that now when we look back on it, we think, well, the fears were a little unfounded, right? Because ultimately people didn't... So, now you're thinking about a kind of new fear. Do you think that there's a chance that in 20 years, the fears that you're talking about right now will turn out to be unfounded?
Robert Gawronia...: Probably so, probably so. But as we are just looking into the darkness of the future, we don't understand all the things that are happening.
Jason Feifer: He's right. Of course we can't see the future, but we can see the past and it's looking pretty familiar.
And that's our first episode Pessimists Archive was created by Louis Anslow, who also edited this episode. If you like the show, then please tell your friends, subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and heap praise upon us on iTunes, which I am told makes a big difference. I guess we'll find out.
And also get in touch! We have two ways for you to do it. You can follow us on Twitter @pessimistsarc, P E S S I M I S T S A R C. Where you can also send us a direct message, we do read them. And our website is pessimists.co, C O, which will contain contact information, a link to subscribe to our newsletter and archival materials from our shows.
Either way, we'd love to hear what you think and we would especially love to hear if you want to sponsor us. Thanks to everyone you heard in this episode, as well as Annette Dorman, Collin Covert, Ellen and Anne from the Woodbridge Public Library. And once again, a special shout out to our voice of outrage, Isaac Butler. Additional thanks to Jake Rossen, whose history of the Walkman in Mental Floss was immensely helpful. As well as to Felicity Cohen and Isaac Laycoch for their help. We're going to try to get new episodes out as quickly as we can, so please stay tuned. I'm Jason Feifer and thanks for listening to Pessimists Archive.
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