Editor’s note: Michael Ackley’s columns may include satire and parody based on current events, and thus mix fact with fiction. He assumes informed readers will be able to tell which is which.
“Many are the benchmarks in the decline of Western civilization,” intoned professor Howard Bashford, “but future historians – if literacy survives – will record among the most important downward steps an invention revealed to the public on June 22, 1979.”
Bashford paused for dramatic effect, shifting his gaze from one side of his lecture hall to the other.
“Can anybody tell me what happened that day?” he asked.
This, however, was strictly for dramatic effect, as he expected no reply. The seats in the auditorium were occupied not by living students but by laptop computers equipped with Skype cameras.
“Nobody?” he continued, scanning the rows of little video cameras. “Well, you all have been affected by it. “The date, as I said, was June 22, 1979; the place was Tokyo, Japan; and the revelation was the Sony Walkman cassette player.
“Who among you does not possess a descendant of that seminal invention? Who can name … ?”
But the professor was interrupted by a beep from his own laptop, which was perched before him on the lectern.
“Professor,” said a voice from the machine, “would my iPhone be such a descendant?”
“What the … !” exclaimed Bashford, shocked. “Who are you?”
“I’m one of your students, Jill Poke,” came the reply.
“And … and you’re watching this lecture in real time?!” Bashford asked.
“I am,” replied Poke. “I thought I’d take a break from ‘World of Warcraft’ and see what it was like to watch you live, instead of playing you back later.”
“O-o-o-o-K,” said Bashford hesitantly. “Let’s proceed. First of all: Yes, your iPhone is a highly sophisticated descendant of the Walkman, but let us get back to history.
“Prior to its public unveiling, Sony founder Akio Morita said the playback-only cassette machine would be ‘the product that will satisfy those young people who want to listen to music all day. They will take it everywhere with them. …
“Every ‘personal entertainment’ development since ’79, from portable CD players to intelligent, cellular telephones, carries the technological genes of the Walkman – and its curse. … For the Walkman delivered …”
“It’s curse?” Poke’s voice broke in. “How can you say that? My iPhone is so cool! I’ve downloaded hundreds of tunes on it; I can ‘tweet’ thousands of friends with it, play games, shop, watch movies …”
It was the professor’s turn to interrupt, “I was about to say that the Walkman delivered a great, destabilizing blow to the already diminished capacity of humans for quiet.”
“I wouldn’t mind quiet,” said Poke, “but I never have to be quiet because I have so much I have to do with my iPhone.”
“Ms. Poke – and the rest of you, if any,” said Bashford, making a sweeping gesture toward the empty seats, “Let’s try a moment of silence.”
There was a pause of about 45 seconds before Poke said shakily, “Wow! That was intense.”
Bashford said, “The Walkman and its successors have pretty much eliminated quiet. The need the device met wasn’t so much the need to listen to music all day as much as it was a desire to override the uncomfortable static of difficult issues in our communities, our country, the world, ourselves.
“Now, every moment can be filled with noise. Going for a jog or a bike ride? Forget about the outing as an opportunity for quiet contemplation. Hook up your iTunes and go.
“Miss Poke, what do you do when you have an hour between classes?”
“Well,” she said, “first I tweet my friends, then I’ll listen to my music or play a video game.”
“Ever crack a book?” asked the professor.
“In a way,” replied Poke. “For example, I get your text online. But mostly I keep in touch with my friends.”
“You know,” said Bashford, “It is fashionable among such psychologists as are left to argue that the obsession with ‘personal entertainment’ is all about the exaltation of the ego, constant attention to one’s every thought or action, a perpetual focus on the big ME.”
“Oh, no!,” came Poke’s voice. “I think the opposite is true. It’s all about my friends. I constantly keep them informed about my music, my dates, my activities, my … Hmmm. I think I’m beginning to see what you mean. But I’m not really dodging life or anything.”
“Ms. Poke,” said Bashford. “I think you’ll find there is at least one fearsome specter you are avoiding with your resort to instantly available television, movies, games and what passes for communication. It’s something you really aren’t ready to face.”
“OK,” said the student. “What is it?”
And Bashford answered, “It’s the idea of being alone with yourself.”