Some people love technology that the rest of us see as obsolete junk (Joel Plosz/The New York Times). Photograph:( The New York Times )
Technology by its nature is fast-moving, and there is often no time or inclination to look back. But many old tech gadgets never really die. Instead, they live on in nostalgia products, like Sony’s not-Walkman, and in the garages and attics of aficionados who believe the PSP was the coolest thing ever made
Sony’s latest versions of the Walkman, the pioneering portable music player first released in 1979, are nothing like the original cassette player that came with foam headphones. Instead, the latest Walkman is a digital music player that costs $1,600 or $3,200.
This probably will not be a big seller. Neither were the Nokia and BlackBerry phones that also lived on — at least until recently — long after those devices became relics to those of us who remember them.
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I wanted to know: Who loves technology that is long past its prime? Well, it is people like Chris Fralic.
A board partner with the startup investment firm First Round, he remembers buying a 2004 Sony PlayStation Portable video game device on eBay when it was available only in Japan. At a party, he pulled the device out of his shirt pocket, and people swarmed.
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“It was like it was beamed from the future,” Fralic told me over the phone last week as he held an old PSP in his hand.
To you, this kind of stuff might be obsolete junk. To enthusiasts like Fralic, technology gadgets contain history — of the collectors’ lives, the tech industry, the United States or all of the above.
“They all tell a story,” Fralic said. “I’ve used and sold and loved this stuff from when it first came out. It’s cool to look back and realize how important it was.”
He converted a third-floor attic in his home into a personal museum for his collection of thousands of technology devices and memorabilia from the past 40 years or more.
Yes, he owns multiple versions of the old-school Walkman and Sony’s Discman CD player. (He emailed me a photo as evidence.) His collection also includes a hulking DEC PDP-11 minicomputer nicknamed R2-D2 that he admitted is a pain to move.
He owns the pieces of an original “blue box” electronic device that Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak cobbled together — before they founded Apple Computer — to hack telephone lines. His collection has so many phones, including a Gordon Gekko-style monster and a Soviet era “yellow phone” designed for connecting to the Kremlin.
Technology by its nature is fast-moving, and there is often no time or inclination to look back. But many old tech gadgets never really die. Instead, they live on in nostalgia products, like Sony’s not-Walkman, and in the garages and attics of aficionados who believe the PSP was the coolest thing ever made.
Addison Del Mastro’s love for a 1970s cassette tape changer from Japan and old clock radios is not about personal nostalgia. Del Mastro, who writes a newsletter about urbanism and land use, is 28 years old and has barely wielded that stuff himself.
But Del Mastro said that when he was a teenager, he brought home from his local recycling center a discarded RadioShack clock radio with faux wood paneling and a cassette player: “I plugged the thing in, and it worked.” He was hooked.
Del Mastro said that he appreciates the creativity and craftsmanship that went into decades-old consumer electronics as well as the ability to understand how they worked.
“You can open up that spinning cassette player from 1970, and any layman can understand what is going on,” he said. “It engages your brain and your hands. That experience is absent in a lot of modern technology or devices.”
Adam Minter said that he started hearing a decade or so ago from electronics recyclers who were getting calls from people eager to buy obsolete personal computers. They were offering far more money than the PCs were worth to strip for raw materials like gold.
Minter, a former colleague of mine who has written two books about the second lives of our stuff, said that those phone calls were often from collectors who hunt for every computer chip ever made by Intel or other manufacturers. “It sounds weird, but really, is it?” he said. “You’re collecting these artifacts of our technological age.”
There are collectors and enthusiasts for everything. You might love vintage Bakelite jewelry or 1970s Italian bicycles. Technology gadgets that inspire wonder and lust are no different. Talking to people about this felt as if I had wandered into an extremely nerdy subculture, and I may never be able to get out again.
“When you crack open this crazy world, I’m a small player in it,” Fralic said. “There are people who are nuts about this stuff.”
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