Do you still love the Walkman? | Remark

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Sony’s latest versions of the Walkman, the pioneering portable music player first launched in 1979, have nothing to do with 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.

It probably won’t be a big seller. The Nokia and BlackBerry phones that also lived on – at least until recently – long after those devices became relics for those of us who remember them, weren’t phones either.

I wanted to know: Who loves technology that’s long past its prime? Well, it’s people like Chris Fralic.

A board member of investment startup First Round, he recalls buying a 2004 Sony PlayStation Portable video game device on eBay when it was only available in Japan. At one party, he took the device out of his shirt pocket and people streamed in.

“It was like she was beamed from the future,” Fralic told me on the phone last week as he held an old PSP in his hand.

To you, this stuff might be obsolete junk. For enthusiasts like Fralic, tech gadgets hold history – of collectors’ lives, of the tech industry, of the United States, or all of the above.

“They all tell a story,” Fralic said. “I have used, sold and loved this material since its release. It’s cool to look back and realize how important that was.

He has converted a third-floor attic of his home into a personal museum for his collection of thousands of technological devices and memorabilia from the past 40 years or more.

Yes, it has several versions of Sony’s old-school Walkman and Discman CD player. (He emailed me a photo as proof.) His collection also includes a massive DEC PDP-11 minicomputer dubbed R2-D2 that he admitted was a pain to move.

It has the parts of an original “blue box” electronic device that Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak tinkered with – before founding Apple Computer – to hack into telephone lines. His collection has many phones, including a Gordon Gekko-style monster and a Soviet-era “yellow phone” designed to connect to the Kremlin.

By its nature, technology moves quickly and there is often no time or inclination to look back. But many old tech gadgets never really die. Instead, they live in nostalgic products, like Sony’s non-Walkman, and in the garages and attics of aficionados who think the PSP is the coolest thing ever made.

Addison Del Mastro’s love of a 1970s Japanese cassette changer and old clock radios isn’t about personal nostalgia. Del Mastro, who writes a newsletter on town planning and land use, is 28 and has barely wielded this 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 panels and a cassette player: “I plugged the thing in, and It functioned.” He was hooked.

Del Mastro said he appreciates the creativity and craftsmanship of decades-old consumer electronics, and the ability to understand how they work.

“You can open up this spinning cassette player from 1970, and any layman can figure out what’s going on,” he said. “It engages your brain and your hands. This experience is missing from many modern technologies or devices.

Adam Minter said he started hearing about a decade ago from electronics recyclers getting calls from people wanting to buy obsolete personal computers. They offered far more money than the PCs were worth to buy commodities like gold.

Minter, a former colleague of mine who wrote two books about the second life of our business, said these phone calls often come from collectors who are looking for every computer chip ever made by Intel or other manufacturers. “It sounds weird, but really, doesn’t it?” he said. “You collect these artifacts of our technological age.”

There are collectors and enthusiasts for everything. You might like vintage bakelite jewelry or Italian bicycles from the 1970s. Tech gadgets that inspire wonder and lust are no different. Talking to people about this made me feel like I had wandered into an extremely cheesy subculture, and I may never be able to get out of it again.

“When you open up this crazy world, I’m a little player in it,” Fralic said. “There are people who are crazy about this stuff.”

Shira Ovide is a technology columnist for The New York Times.

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