Media Archaeology: Affordances

Boom Box

Today I had the opportunity to go through the MASC and look through a couple of old gadgets they had stored. Unfortunately I was only able to view two devices as one of the staff members in charge wasn’t there. However, I was intrigued by the Boombox I had saw and the nostalgia it brought forth.

A boombox is a device that receives radio stations and plays recorded music and has been around since the early 1970’s. Boom boxes have been called terms such as the ghetto blasters, jam boxes or wogga box. In some parts of Europe they simply call it radio-cassette. This device offers cassette decks, AM/FM tuners, stereo sound, loud case and input output jacks so you can plug in your headphones. It functions as a music player and can convert parks, streets, backyards and kitchens into an instant dance floor. It was often carried over the shoulder to blaire music and was a powerful force in spreading hip hop music to inner corners of cities. When you consider the portable radio culture of the 80’ and 90s you start to realize how different the world is today.

Our evolving culture of music is just as influenced by our technology as driven by it. We are only capable of what our devices are capable of, so every technological innovation becomes a cultural one. Every new advance in technology brought a wave of new ways to use it. A boombox was a revolution, it took the Hi-Fi stereo and made it portable. This made it possible to bring your music and your culture with you, to the street, to the pizza shop, and on the bus. This had a huge impact on our lives.

It’s easy to look at an engineering marvel and not understand how it can affect us, but there are always people with just the right problem looking for just the right solution. We can never predict how something will affect society, because there are too many creative minds looking for a way to innovate something that they’re doing. This includes the music industry, because consumers are always looking for the new and improved devices.

Our lives are improved by small ideas and big ideas. Sometimes the small ideas become big ideas, sometimes it’s the other way around. There were a number of inventions necessary to create a boombox, and they were created by many different people working all around the world at different times. It’s easy to say, “Hey, what if that giant stereo was small enough to carry?” But it isn’t easy to actually reimagine every component into a smaller and lighter version. Transistors, circuit boards, and wiring all had to be discovered before the idea became practical.

Resources like iFixit have always been around, we have always looked for ways to make our devices last longer. The manufacturers of our gadgets have no motivation to make them user serviceable, they want us to come to them and buy a whole new machine when the old one breaks. But the knowledge to repair and renew the workings of the world isn’t owned by any one person, it leaks out and is used by everyone.

Our lives are defined by our capabilities. If you have no money, you probably aren’t going to see the inside of a private jet. And if you live in a world where recorded music can only be played on a large machine, you need to bring the party to where the music is. Once these devices became available, people could plan their activities differently. They could bring their new music with them, they would attend new events, meet new people, their entire lives would be changed.

Is this device obsolete? Not entirely. There are some things that age well…twinkies, wine and Will Smith for example. However, tech savvy people like myself know that the lifespan of new technology lasts for about 2 years. However, devices such as the old boombox are still being manufactured and utilized to this day. One reason that boomboxes can still be used today is the standard audio jack, a technology that has been in use for over a century.

Whether your equipment has a 1/8th inch port or a 1/4 inch port, it is compatible with any musical device created. You can easily plug a brand new, state of the art Android phone into a stereo made in the 1930’s and have it play music effortlessly. Our world is constantly evolving new ways of thinking, but a boombox is a link to the past that is still relevant today.