Thatcher – just a Walkman

Did you cry or rejoice when the Walkman died? It was a world-changing device, created in 1979, overthrown by a series of newcomers that it fundamentally influenced, that continued to be dragged out beyond the point where it had relevance until its surprisingly recent demise. I didn’t. I was indifferent.

An old lady died today, apparently upset and confused through much of her later years and with little contact with her children. I can’t bring myself to be happy about this. I dislike unnecessary suffering wherever it is, and it seems she had a shitty time of it toward the end. Clearly lots of other people had a shitty time of it because of her, during and since her reign as Prime Minister, and I understand the joy and grief that people are pouring out. But she’s not important, and hasn’t been for years.

Maggie is a Walkman. I’m not thinking about Walkmans anymore, I’m concerned about the move from mp3s to streaming – the fact that the tape was the medium that revolutionised music consumption, and was the first usable and affordable portable device doesn’t matter to me one bit when I can store all of my music on Google Play and stream it on any device. It’s worth remembering and learning from history, but not at the expense of the present.

I remember my first portable music device. It wasn’t an official Walkman because we weren’t rich, and it chewed up my tapes about every fifth use. Even those that didn’t get chewed up stretched over time, and as the batteries ran out the music would slowly grind to a halt. These problems were unique to the tape era, much as the poll tax, the miners strike and removal of milk were unique to Maggies government.

What Thatcher fundamentally changed was the fact that music could be personal and portable for the first time, and the Walkman opened up free markets in a new way, with the real beginnings of a project to roll back the state, undermine collectivist movements and monetise every aspect of life.

Later came Blair with his shininess, magnetism and apparent indestructibility. I guess he must be the CD in this story – the fundamental principles are very similar to the previous, and in many ways it’s a much better, pleasanter and more reliable version of it’s predecessor.

Brown is the Minidisc – technically actually quite good, but everyone had invested heavily in CDs and didn’t want to replace the whole lot, and then along came MP3s before he could really get dug in. Both Brown and the Minidisc were a victim of poor timing and circumstance.

And MP3s should really be the modern Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties – They almost sound, to the untrained ear, like music, but they lack depth, range and substance. We have a new set of problems with MP3s, and these are largely different to those of tapes. So when the tape Walkman finally stopped getting produced (in 2010) people were too busy cursing iTunes for being surprisingly difficult to use and worrying about DRM, rather than mourning it’s passing.

And this is exactly what we should be doing now. The Coalition government is carrying on some of the ideological work of Thatcherism, but this is often in brand new ways. Worrying about the death of one lost old woman is distracting, and no kind of victory. This is the month that many of the welfare and healthcare changes came into force, and we absolutely must not forget that or allow this to be submerged in misguided and misspent wrath.

We should turn our attention to the next stages of the development. Rather than singing about the wicked Walkman being dead, we need to work out how we can ensure the cloud can be a freer, fairer and more equitable solution than personal possession of musical hardware has ever been. I really hope Play turns out to be some sort of progressive liberal socialists, but I’m scared it will be something much more like a sinister clown.

    • Dave Leack
    • April 8th, 2013

    Analogy torture and old lady clog popping aside, hold on to as many of “your” files as you can. If you paid for the track have it local. For one thing bandwidth isn’t free (but that’s a whole other discussion in itself) but more importantly, own what you own. It’s highly unlikely that the big G will go out of business in the near future but be under no illusion about where their allegiances lie. Pro tip: not with the end user (or product as they like to view them).
    The second the rules change and they decide to do something interesting with your listening habits or whatever, you need to be in a position to jump ship without being several hundred pounds out of pocket.
    This goes double for Amazon and (shudder) apple.

    • Sound advice.

      I know what you mean about owning a solid copy, and I’ve started running my home PC as something of a server – as and when I buy from Play or iTunes (very rarely now), I put a copy there. Then I can still stream on mobile devices without using hard drive space. Works great on phone and Chromebook, will let you know about Nexus tab soon. Remote desktop built into Chrome helps too, so I can save files to that drive from afar.

      But yes, I know Google aren’t in it just for the love. I just find it difficult to remember that when they flutter their eyelashes so…

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