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Life:Connected

Putting a price on computer nostalgia

About the author

Tom Chatfield is a British author. His most recent book, “Netymology”, explores language and technology. He blogs at tomchatfield.net and tweets at @TomChatfield

Apple I (Copyright: Getty Images)

(Copyright: Getty Images)

Keep hold of your old computers, iPods and video games - they may be worth more than you think, say Tom Chatfield.

For people who tend to have one eye on the future, geeks also indulge in their fair share of nostalgia.

Ask one of a certain age (ask me, indeed) about the changing nature of computing, and it won’t be long before they’re reminiscing about the look, feel, sense and weight of a beloved old BBC Micro Model B, Sinclair ZX81, Macintosh 128K, - or perhaps how they used to creep into the smoky semi-darkness of a local arcade to feed small change into Donkey Kong and Galaga.

Despite the rise of the internet and the amount of time we invest in seemingly transient, digital worlds, we cannot help becoming emotionally attached to physical objects.

The fetishistic power of them looms as large as ever in our lives. What is shifting, however, is the ways in which this fetish plays out.

Once upon a time, books, LPs, battered posters and photograph albums were the physical expression of our lives, on display for all to see. Today, in a word of Kindles and iPads, affection flows down narrower channels - towards the tools that gift us entry to the online world. Just ask a teenager how they feel towards the sleek smartphone in their pocket, or the tablet peeking out of their tote bag.

Or, for a more extreme example, look to a recent auction in New York where one of only 200 Apple 1 computers ever created was sold for $374,500 – more than double its estimate. It’s one of only a handful of working models remaining in the world, but it’s unlikely that the buyer is interested in actually using it. Like a Ming vase or a first folio of Shakespeare’s complete works (yours for not less than $5m), it’s the aura of the object that matters, along with its unique place in history.

Investment tip

The era of home computing was only born once and, as it steadily recedes from us into history, the price for owning an iconic piece of it is only going to go up. If I had enough cash – and a serious amount would be required – I can imagine bidding for Apple 1s at auction. They remain, after all, a real bargain compared to Shakespeare; and I like to imagine that I’d use mine from time to time, as I do my beloved, battered BBC Micro.

There’s something important encoded in the idea of having an active relationship with our technological past. Unlike art or historical artifacts (which we’re happy simply to look at), interaction is crucial to our relationship with computers. The Apple 1 and its ilk were machines designed to be played and tinkered with, programmed, adjusted, used; and the opportunity to see such machines continue to be used is perhaps the most precious legacy computing collectors can bequeath – not least because of how far and how fast our physical relationship with machines has shifted in the last half-century.

Today, in an era of devices mass manufactured to the tune of many millions, objects’ auras don’t rest on rarity. Microsoft’s launch of its new Surface tablets may well go down as a major event in the history of computing, but I doubt we’ll be paying the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars for first-generation Surface machines forty years from now.

If you want an investment tip, then, here it is: it’s all about the owner. There will never be another Apple 1. Come the 22nd-century, however, Bill Gates’s very own mass-manufactured office desktop computer may be pipping Apple 1s at the auction house – while Steve Jobs’s personal first-edition iPod (if such an object exists) could become literally priceless.

While celebrity ownership offers a new kind of aura to mass-manufactured devices, however, it’s likely to remain less interesting to most of us that the purely personal: those devices that each of us have lived with, gathering dust in a draw, still bearing the knocks and thumb-smudges of involvement in almost every aspect of modern living.

Perhaps this is why I, at least, feel the urge to hold onto my old computers. Because, increasingly, the histories of our lives are also the histories of our machines: the experiences we have had with and through them. If we want someone in 2050 to understand the texture our lives, we need to be able to ensure their access to our devices: from apps running on original iPhones to Nintendo games consoles, Android tablets, mass-market desktops, and even those brick-like phones many of us first made a mobile call through. Without the hardware, you have only half the story.  
 
Only a few of today’s digital devices will ever become collectors’ items; and most of those are likely to end up locked away from the world, alongside art, antiques and first editions. It’s the rest, though, that really matters. In a digital age, these are the building blocks of our individual histories – and hanging onto them may become one of the most important ways we tell the story of our selves.

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