According to a recent BA-sponsored survey, reported by all the news media, compiling ‘mix tapes’ is what the average Brit misses most from the past. Choosing which tracks to copy from your own vinyl records onto a cassette tape was the key activity to create personalised media and to enable sharing. It was a German-Brazilian former student of Philosophy, Andreas Pavel, who first approached consumer electronics companies in the mid 1970 with his idea for a portable personal stereo cassette player device. At first his idea was dismissed – “People would be crazy to run around wearing headphones” – but, of course, his ‘gadget’ went on to become the Sony Walkman.
Almost forty years on, people are reminiscing about personal cassette tapes while being permanently connected to a personal, portable device. Now the device is a smart phone, and limited capacity cassettes tapes have been replaced by near –instantaneous media streaming across broadband and mobile internet networks.
So are we better off than the tape mixers of the 1970s and 1980s? A lot has changed in terms of capability and availability but with that change has come much greater complexity. We now have limitless choice of entertainment so personalisation to our exact individual tastes is easier. And we have social sharing on a scale and at a speed that was never possible by hand or by post (as in the postal service). But rather than thought crazy if they are connected, the person without a mobile phone, with no social media account or not answering emails immediately is considered, well, a freak; just not part of society.
The BA survey may have encouraged a twinge of nostalgia but there is an underlying truth; that many people are now overwhelmed by the complexity that rapid changes in technology – devices, networks and software – have brought about. The impact on the ability to concentrate and focus on an important mental task for any length of time is a major issue for anyone whose job requires hard and sustained thinking through complex challenges.
It’s an irony that, today, people are seeking support, training and coaching, and even deeper therapeutic support, to overcome the pressures of what Parvel originally saw as control and convenience. The first portable player has evolved to become the vehicle for a constant distraction and intrusion that many people today find is making their lives less under control, less personal and at times downright inconvenient.