It is so familiar now we don't see or hear it anymore. It is the look and sound of the Walkman dead: the head cocked at a slight angle, the mouth gently lolling. From about the skull comes a tinny low buzzing sound, like metallic bees. The eyes flicker with consciousness, but they don't see. They're somewhere else.
It must have been possible, before Akio Morita, to live in your own world. After Morita, it may have been inevitable.
Transistor radios. VCRs. Satellite dishes. TVs and stereos. CD players. Boomboxes. The co-founder of Sony Corp., who died Sunday at the age of 78 in Tokyo, didn't invent most of these things, but he did build them more attractively and marketed them more cleverly than anyone else. It's enough to say he was responsible for investing the Sony brand with an aura of affluence, and with-it modernity.
But these little marvels--every year, another great gotta-have-it gizmo!--not only did something for us, they did something to us.
It's a great irony of Morita's life's work that products designed for mass communication and entertainment also have become products of mass isolation. They made possible the thousand-yard stare of the Walkman listener and the spasmodical intensity of the PlayStation player. Sony created "personal" products (the Walkman, the Discman, the Watchman, etc.) that made it possible to be impersonal.
Under Morita's dynamic and charismatic leadership, the list of Sony's innovations grew almost annually.
The company popularized the transistor radio in the United States in the 1950s, introducing the notion of portability to electronics. Before Morita, popular music had little afterlife, at least in the commercial sense. Record players were comically unwieldy, and recorded music--short of the car radio--was limited to stacks of vinyl. The transistor spread Top 40 across the land, helping to fuel the rise of rock-and-roll and giving teenagers a soundtrack to associate with every significant event in their lives. Songs that were once thought to have no value after they dropped off the Top 40 list have ended up creating a whole new genre of radio station--the oldies sound. How many products are sold today by linking them to songs drilled into the cerebral cortex by the newly ubiquitous transistor radio? You heard it through the grapevine?
In the 1960s, Sony invented the Trinitron color television tube. Thanks to miniaturization, disciplined cost control and constant innovation, Sony (and its Japanese competitors) made cheaper, smaller TVs possible. Before Morita, radios and then TV sets were devices of group interaction, for better or worse. They came in elephantine consoles of mahogany, brass and cloth. They were expensive, balky devices that looked like oscilloscopes. If you were lucky enough to afford one, you placed it in the central room of the house, where family and visitors were likely to gather. It was the household's electronic hearth, around which the splendors of Ed Sullivan and "Bonanza" poured forth.
Does the whole family gather 'round the Trinitron now? Not when Trinitrons are scattered around the house like doilies, each tuned to another channel, each attended by a different member of the family.
In the 1970s, Sony sold the world's first mass-market VCR, the Betamax. Soon, TV viewers weren't beholden to network schedules or advertisers. They could tape their favorite shows and play them back, skipping the commercials. If they were incapable of mastering that level of technology, they could rent movies. Hollywood once feared the VCR would completely eliminate the first-run movie theater. Ironically, it has created a brand-new market for their wares worldwide--Hollywood today couldn't live without the revenues from videotapes. Of course, the Betamax (and subsequently the VHS format) also changed the landscapes of America's downtowns; it took pornography out of the red-light district theaters and brought it back into the home where it belonged.
What about the increasingly tiny video camera? It changed our politics. Rodney King's beating by the Los Angeles police would never have sparked violent riots had it not been captured by one of the little devices. Conversely, what bank heist or ATM stickup isn't videotaped? Now the police routinely film even drunk-driving stops.
Morita's most famous brainchild was the Walkman. It was introduced 20 years ago, after he overruled those at Sony who believed it wouldn't sell. Soon, there was the Watchman, a tiny TV set that could be taken anywhere, and the Discman, a CD follow-up to the Walkman.
Let's avoid dewy nostalgia for the pre-radio days when the extended family gathered on the davenport in the front parlor for a hearty sing-along. But it's worth asking whether being able to retreat into one's own personal PlayStation is ultimately a good thing.
Where did we find all the time to play with the new toys that Sony and its competitors produced? What did we stop doing to watch our videotapes, our Discman and our Watchman (yes, we stopped reading newspapers, among other things, but that's another story). Or are we multitasking? Attending one football game while watching another on the little portable? Or more impressive yet, listening to the Walkman while jabbering on the portable phone while checking our e-mail?
If the latter, credit Morita with one more trend: the Speeding Up of Everything.
After a Japanese prime minister visited Paris in 1962, French President Charles de Gaulle captured the world's dismissive view of Japan when he asked, "Who was that transistor salesman?"
Akio Morita was a transistor salesman. And a social revolutionary.
CAPTION: Akio Morita, left, and fellow Sony co-founder Masaru Ibuka in their Tokyo office in the 1960s.
CAPTION: Good ol' Japanese know-how: Sony co-founder Akio Morita introducing a portable color TV in 1967.