OSU, The Walkman Effect, and the Zombification of America

Take a stroll through campus during the minutes between classes and you’ll see women walking while speaking on cell phones, men walking while texting, coffee shops crowded with people staring at laptop screens, and seemingly everybody wearing headphones linked to portable music devices.

Hordes of human forms shambling about doesn’t just support the current pop culture fascination with zombie apocalypses—the zombifying use of cell phones and iPods in public poses a serious threat to our communal society.

In a recent op-ed in The New York Times titled “Your Phone vs. Your Heart,” Barbara L. Fredrickson, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, suggests that one consequence of our cell phone/texting/ iPodding in public “may be on our biological capacity to connect with other people.”

To sum up her argument: “Our ingrained habits change us. They mold the very structure of your brain in ways that strengthen your proclivity for that habit.” Thus, “A lack of positive social contact diminishes people…If you don’t regularly exercise your ability to connect face to face, you’ll eventually find yourself lacking some of the basic biological capacity to do so.”

In light of this article, Corvallis Advocate staff took it upon themselves to conduct a decidedly unscientific study—to sit at key times on a park bench in front of the Memorial Union and count the use of portable music players. The point was to gauge levels of interaction—or lack thereof—among students as they walked to and from class. The study may strike some as old fashioned, like some old man complaining about “kids these days.” That’s a fair assessment: the principal investigator is a grumpy Luddite. But biased or not, our informal tally revealed that between 9:45 and 10 a.m., 18 percent of those passing by wore headphones; between 12:45 and 1 p.m. 12 percent; and between 2:45 and 3 p.m., a whopping 22 percent.

The significance of these numbers depends on who you ask.

One such person could be International Research Center for Japanese Studies Professor Shuhei Hosokawa. In 1984 Hosokawa published a paper in Popular Music titled “The Walkman Effect.” The Walkman, of course, was the first device that allowed people to control where, when, and what music they wanted to play. Hosokawa viewed the Walkman as not just another technological device, but as a cultural artifact. Hosokawa described listening to music on the Walkman “as a place out of space and time, a placeless place, where the user is taken to be disconnected from the world around them.” This was not a good thing: “People lose their healthy relationship with their environment, become isolated, and turned into a lonely crowd suffering from incommunicability.”

On the other hand, you could ask University of Sussex Professor Michael Bull, author of Sound Moves: iPod Culture and Urban Experience. Bull takes a more favorable view of the Walkman Effect. In an interview with Wired magazine, Bull said, “People like to control their environment, and the iPod is the perfect way to manage your experience. Music is the most powerful medium for thought, mood, and movement control… [It] allows people to find pleasure in the place they’re existing. [Personal stereos] make the user’s life much better.” Bull offered a rejoinder to the criticisms of these technologies: “How often do you talk to people in public anyway?”

Obviously, there’s a wide range of intentional avoidance of social interaction—from a group of people silently staring at the lights in an elevator to massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) or Second Life. Some of these are intrinsic animal responses, some of these are weird, borderline disturbing displays of antisocial behavior.

And to be fair, there are a number of valid excuses for our habits of distraction and self-isolation. In an increasingly urban world, bombarded by noise on all scales and forms and pressed by an increasing populace, it’s important to take moments to oneself, even in the midst of the madness. Few would begrudge a person, after a long day of work, slipping on headphones for the 40-minute commute on a crowded New York subway. Same goes for OSU students wearing headphones while working on their laptops in the library: music is not only calming, focusing, but helps drown out the commotion around them.

But we’ve gotten to the point where, if we want to talk to someone in public, we’ll likely have to breach their antisocial bubble. And the Walkman Effect bubbles are everywhere—cell phones and laptops, mobile gaming devices—anything that allows a user to escape into a private space while in a public environment. We’re living in a world where people in shared spaces are connecting, to a large degree, only by the very experience of sharing the Walkman Effect.

As Fredrickson made clear, there is real danger in the social isolation and alienation these technologies and habits pose. To quote again from Fredrickson’s article, “When you share a smile or laugh with someone face to face, a discernible synchrony emerges between you, as your gestures and biochemistries, even your respective neural firings, come to mirror each other. It’s micro-moments like these… that build your capacity to empathize as well as to improve your health. If you don’t regularly exercise this capacity, it withers.”

by Nathaniel Brodie