Stored away in many boxes in a loft in the UK are the hundreds of records and CDs that make up my music collection, meticulously and lovingly built up over about 20 years. There was simply no way to take all of this to Japan when I made the move back in 2003. Then the iPod came along and I was able to carry close to the whole lot and barely even feel a weight in my pocket. It was the kind of technology that I had subconsciously been waiting half of my life to be invented.
Portable music players such as the iPod are ubiquitous across Tokyo, with almost everyone on any given train carriage having small wires dangling from the sides of their heads, immersed in their own private space. ‘My Little White Box’ was the first short story that I had written in many years, inspired by both the urban scenes I was part of and by the wonders of this technology, and is a piece of writing I’m rather proud of.
My little white box is small and light. My little white box looks like a medical device, an instrument of measurement for some unknown human condition or an add-on appendage for some greater hospital machine that enables the functioning of the whole system and which, if it were removed, would cause the patient to die. My little white box has the whole world in it – or my world at least.
It has become an extension of me. I am connected to it from the moment I leave my house. It guides me on my walk to the train station. It allows me to ignore the fact that there is a whole carriage load of people around me on my journey (many of whom are also immersed in their own alternate realities too), and is only switched off when I am forced to interact with the others around me by my arrival at work. The same routine is repeated in reverse at the end of the working day. Once I am home, I plug my bigger black boxes into it and what’s inside comes out and carries me through the evening. Since I bought my little white box, I am never without it.
Sometimes, when I’m sitting on the train and yet I’m also in Jamaica, Harlem, Mali or London, I marvel at the number of other worlds orbiting round inside the heads of those I share my carriage with. I wonder whether their scope is as broad as mine, or whether all that is between their ears is drawn purely from these islands. They are easy to spot as, just like me, they have the telltale thin white cables dangling from the sides of their head. Usually, those without the white wires but with a flex of a different colour have their own alternate realities too but they are shorter and tend not to be drawn from such a diverse pool as mine.
I love the fact that without having to crawl my way up from the bottom and without having to put up with inane interferences from somebody talking nonsense between pieces or companies trying to coerce me into buying products that I have no need for or desire to own, I run my own radio station. I listen to my own fantasy playlist where all I hear is utterly tailored to my tastes and I hear nothing that I don’t like.
My little white box is both a time machine and a teleportation device. In a matter of seconds, I jump from soaking up Delta blues from the 1930’s to getting a taste of the latest sounds from the Okinawan underground. From Parisian street café stories to Black Moses, live at Wattstax. From a bustling and lively dancehall in 1960’s Kingston to deep morning ragas that feel as old as time itself.
There are entire social histories in my little white box. One such story begins in a Britain that is beginning to drag itself out of the austere and monochromatic post-war period – Twentieth Century, second half. It tells of four young men from the North of England who find a beat in the late fifties/early sixties and work that groove until it explodes all over the world. The beat begins simply enough, replicating its straightforward yet driving roots. Later sequences of zeroes and ones trapped in my box unveil further mutations of that simple beat. They begin by feeding back. Harmonies develop in more and more intricate patterns. Eastern influences blossom over the straight Western structures. Later still in the sequence, the influence of a vast array of chemicals can be heard, altering the course, shape and sound of the beat yet further and in considerable ways. The beat ends up so multi-layered and lush by the end of the story that it’s a completely different strain from the original source rhythm. By the time it has reached its final resting point, it has undergone a huge range of mutations, each twist, turn and development has inspired and influenced hundreds to thousands of other beat stories.
Many of these other tales are also in my white box. One bar becomes an infinitely mutating rhythmical fractal, always changing, never ending. There are stories and beat histories that began in London, New York, Mississippi, San Francisco or Liverpool and then mushroomed to spread across the world. They affected millions of different people in millions of different ways and mostly all spawned legions of imitations. An infinity of stories in one little pocket-sized box. Remove yourself from your environment and become absorbed in historical beat patterns read as viral traces.
I have a chip in my head that allows me to receive signals from all the other little white boxes in my proximity. I descend from the station concourse and find the spot on the platform where I know the front of the train will stop. Then, I step onto the first carriage and stand back to back with the driver. As the short journey through a smattering of small stations begins, I walk slowly from one end of the train to the other, immersing myself in the sweet balm of sonic chaos. No journey is ever the same as the infinite varieties of box data all collude to produce eternally unique disorderly symphonies at every step. Hints of structure phase in and out if the pace of my footsteps slow down. It can sound almost like a beehive if I move too quickly, too swift to pick up patterns as broken beats swarm around my head like angry insects. As I walk, the passengers standing or seated on one side of the carriage form a left channel whilst those on the opposite side make a right channel. This provides the effect of a stereo output but never makes for a balanced mix.
I sometimes make a sport out of tuning in to the complexity and searching for something I am familiar with. The man standing ahead of me by the doors will provide me with a sweeping string arrangement that may make me loiter as I recognise a symphonic refrain I vaguely recollect from the shifting sands of my memory. A few words of a rap I once heard on another radio some time ago come in from the kid absorbed in his phone. A guy with a beard and a book generously but unintentionally donating a horn stab from the Godfather into the mix. A teenage couple sharing, with an ear each. What on earth are they listening to? That’ll turn their brains to mush! A brightly coloured high school student wrapped up in the sugarcoated world of The Mouse. Brief sample dialogues in English from businessmen bent on self-education. Splintering chords from a sullen youth to contradict the soothing tones just in from the old lady. For the unwired, all is silent bar the motions of the wheels and the occasional announcement from the driver, which also fade in and out of my mix.
The other day, I left my house and accidentally forgot my little white box. In my neighbourhood I could hear children playing with each other and laughing as the birds whistled and sang in the trees.