Your oldest, most outdated device

Some of the best technology writers in the world spill the beans on the most outdated gadgets they still own

Rob Walker, Yahoo News
Yahoo News
Kevin Kelly's phone
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“I have a Panasonic land-line telephone from the ’80s right here on my desk I still use every …

by Rob Walker (@notrobwalker) | @YahooTech

Recently, belatedly, I upgraded to a smartphone, ditching my old and not-so-smart phone. I felt a little sad letting go of that hearty gizmo — and that got me thinking: What other “old” devices are we hanging on to, despite our better judgment, and supposedly superior alternatives?

I decided to ask some of the smartest technology writers around about their "most outdated device." I was intentionally vague about what I meant by "device," and "outdated," since I figured vagueness would lead to more interesting answers.

It sure did! Read the great replies below. Then, if you are so inspired, tell us: What is your most outdated device? Why haven't you upgraded? Are you proud of, embarrassed by or ambivalent about this outdated thing?

Here’s what people who make a living from cutting-edge tech-thought say. You can view photos of their gadgets at the bottom of the article:

Kevin Kelly (@Kevin2Kelly), author of What Technology Wants and founder of Cool Tools: “I have a Panasonic land-line telephone from the ’80s right here on my desk I still use every day,” Kelly says, adding: “I don't have a handset for the phone, I use a headset and a glass globe to hold down the off button.”

Well, that’s awesome. And I had to start with Kelly, because this whole subject reminded me of an observation in his What Technology Wants — that posturing aside, we all have different categories in which we are early/late adopters. (Plus he has interesting things to say about tools never dying.) So I wasn’t surprised that Kelly has a full-on theory of upgrading that guides his own practice: “I used to hold off till I couldn't hold off any longer,” he explains.“Now I try to go with the flow. Not at the head as bleeding-edge first adopter, but fast-following.”

Alexis Madrigal (@AlexisMadrigal), senior editor for The Atlantic and author of Powering The Dream: “I think it's the sound system in our car 2003 Volkswagen Golf TDI,” Madrigal says. “We have one of those magical devices that lets you play an iPod through the tape deck (how do those work?) — but it makes a horrible screeching noise when it gets hot.” That leaves the CD player and terrestrial radio: “We seem to rotate between the same three CDs we burned or borrowed some time ago, and the local NPR affiliate.”

Madrigal hastens to add that what he really wants is a stereo with “an aux-in so that I can play Rdio throughout the vehicle.” The problem? “I am scared of car audio guys,” he says. “I knew a lot of them in high school. They are a kind of gadgethead that just kind of freaks me out. I loathe the idea of going in there and having to explain why we have this old-ass tape deck, and then — because I don't know any better — getting ripped off on a new stereo.

“Or,” he continues, “maybe there is a simpler explanation: You can't order a car stereo off Amazon, which is where I get the rest of my stuff.”

Joanne McNeil (@jomc), technology writer for Internet of Dreams: “I got a Nikon Coolpix E4300 in 2003 after starting my first real job, with my first real paycheck,” McNeil says. “It was probably the most I'd ever spent on anything in my life ($400).” Splurging was a motivator to take the object seriously, although “several thousand self-portraits for my MySpace page later, I only barely understood the settings.”

Before long, of course, there was a camera built into her phone with twice the megapixels. “The Nikon is now held together with duct tape and feels enormous in my hands. … I haven't taken it outside the house in years. But the picture quality is still fairly good. It is my inside-the-house camera, totake pictures for ebay sales or things I don't want mixed in with my iPhoto images. And I'm not the only one: Seems Coolpix 4300 is still going strong on Flickr.”

Douglas Rushkoff (@Rushkoff), author of Present Shock (see our interview about that here): “Probably my little notepad and pen,” Rushkoff says. “I have a little leather fold with a small notepad inside it, and a strap for a pen. It fits in a sport coat pocket, or in my computer bag. When I get an idea, or someone says to get a book or see some website, I write it down in there. I write down little ideas for talks or book chapters.

“Sometimes I'll have a meeting with someone and who is jotting notes in a smart phone or tablet,” he continues, “and I'm just using the pad. I think it's superior. I am not embarrassed. I think it looks kind of cool at this point. Retro. More professional, even. As if a real writer would still be using things that let him actually write. Plus it feels more private. It's not being disseminated or stored up in the cloud. It's quite literally close to my chest.”

Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: “The ‘device’ that feels most outdated to me is my blog,” says Carr. “When I started the thing, in 2005, the personal blog was the iconic expression of ‘new media’; having one put you in the oxymoronic category of journalist-hipster. But the action has moved away from blogs, to the more conversational social networks like Twitter and their bite-sized bulletins. To be a blogger today makes you feel a little like Norma Desmond after silent movies were replaced by talkies: ‘I'm still big; it's the internet that got small!’”

Jenna Wortham (@jennydeluxe), technology reporter for New York Times. “I found my first Nintendo under a softly glowing Christmas tree,” says Wortham. She shared that present with her sisters, and grew up “deftly grabbing coins, squashing goombas, saving princesses.” Her second was an ex-boyfriend’s $10 Craigslist find, useful for “reliving our youth.”

“My third, and current, Nintendo, I picked up at a friend's moving sale,” she continues, “when she was trying to get rid of some junk before moving into a new apartment. Junk! I rode home on the subway with the machine on my lap, grinning back at anyone who smiled appreciatively at my prize. That was two years ago.” Today the device sits on a bookshelf, in the company of “cascading leafy green plants and books, unused.”

But that doesn’t mean it’s useless. “I'll never get rid of it,” Wortham insists. “I love looking at it and thinking about its past lives in my life. Nintendo wasn't the first console I played or the last, by far, but it was the most universal. Everyone I knew had a Nintendo — it represented this precious, universal kidlanguage that everyone spoke, still speaks, and that meant something to me that nothing else has since. I can't give up hope that some day, all the pieces might somehow magically make their way back into my life and I'll press play again someday.”

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