To observe the thirtieth birthday of the Sony Walkman, BBC News Magazine persuaded a thirteen year old iPod user—reared with the coddling comforts of touchscreens and 10,000 song playlists—to trade his player in for its stark ancestor. The piece is an interesting examination of not simply the obvious changes in industrial design and device function since the late 70s, but the ease with which we’ve taken these changes for granted.
As the teen revisits (or more properly, visits for the first time) the dinosaur Walkman, his digital naïvety—the horror that the tape player would be without a shuffle function—is matched by a fascinating study of how people encounter and learn interact with their things; the boy devises an improvised “shuffle” function by holding down rewind and releasing it randomly. It’s worth noting that the teen’s first impressions of the Walkman, for all of the ways it is different from an iPod, are responses to its physicality: its largeness, its boxy form, its dull grey color.
But despite looking like something from The Empire Strikes Back when compared to the svelte, resplendent iPod, the boy is able to find not charm in the design of the Walkman—as he is without nostalgia for the era of the cassette—but outright good function, noting the satisfying click of its physical interface and the humane thoughtfulness of its dual headphone jacks. The essay is mostly the expected combination of generational curiosity and “I can’t believe people used to use this!” bemusement, but there is poignancy in the respect the boy has for this strange box—a device he comes to refer to, with deference, as an “antique.”