MIKE PESCA, host:
On Friday, early adopting dorks, EADs, across the country will line up at their nearest Apple Store to pick up the iPhone 3G. In the unlikely event that they have a girlfriend, they will pass off their first-generation iPhone to said girlfriend. Look, I kid, they won't have a girlfriend. So what happens with the old iPhones is that they become a piece in a collection.
From giant cell phones to old motherboards, a growing number of vintage tech collectors are turning old, beige electronic equipment into objet d'art. I spoke with one collector, Jason Savitt of the Vintage Tech Blog. He owns an embarrassment of old gear, and as you'll hear, the phone we reached him on may soon be in a museum. The card next to it will say "worst cell phone ever." I asked him if it matters whether the stuff he collects is in working order.
(Soundbite of reverse playback)
Mr. JASON SAVITT (Blogger, Vintage Tech Blog): The older it gets, the harder it is to get it to work. So, a lot of times those are just - I call them reference pieces, just something that somebody can take a look at that would be able to take a look and see what the technology looked like or felt like for just that one time.
PESCA: Right. What is your prized possession?
Mr. SAVITT: Right now that would be an Altair 8800, and what that is, it's considered one of the first personal computers.
PESCA: It dates back to what year?
Mr. SAVITT: It dates back to about 1975.
PESCA: And what kind of amazing things could you do on a personal computer in 1975? Blow my mind.
Mr. SAVITT: Blow your mind? Well, it had, I believe, about 256 bits of RAM. That is about a quarter of a kilobyte, and you programmed it by just flicking switches and watching the output on LEDs.
PESCA: Was there - I mean, was there a keyboard?
Mr. SAVITT: No.
PESCA: Let me ask you this. Collecting this stuff, does sometimes, I guess - you know, there are very few computers now that where the only inputs are switches. But can you see where today's technology comes from? Is it like the evolution of man? You could see, wow, without this thing we never, we never would have gotten something we use today?
Mr. SAVITT: Definitely. The evolution of the iPod, for example. I see it starting back as early as the early 1950s, when they had the Regency TR-1 Radio, which was the first transistorized radio. Then from there, you had technologies that came along like the Walkman, you know, the portable CD player. Then you had the Diamond Rio, and then you had a few other mp3 technologies that use flash and hard drives, you know, long before the iPod ever came out. Apple just kind of took an existing technology and popularized it, but, you know, the real revolution was the Regency TR-1, and I can see those go for, you know, several hundred dollars on eBay.
PESCA: And we leave Jason Savitt as we met him, in a hail of hard-to-understand new technology. As if to underscore his point, I believe Mr. Savitt is saying, I'm sorry, Hal, I can't do that, but we thank him even though he maybe can't hear us. Jason Savitt is a collector and the man behind the Vintage Tech Blog. Thank you, Jason.
OK. I think he said you're welcome.
IAN CHILLAG: Ah, I love it when a plan comes together.
PESCA: To keep the vintage-computer-thing going, BPP producer Ian Chillag joins me in the studio with two purposes. One, what is your Fruity Cheerios versus Froot Loops verdict?
CHILLAG: You know, I like the classics. I'm a Froot Loops man through and through.
PESCA: And more to the point, he is now talking about another fellow, a guy who repurposes old computers. Take it away, Ian.
CHILLAG: Yeah. I saw this amazing video online, and I just had to call up the guy to hear how he did it. We'll put up a video on our website, too. For now, let's just hit the music.
(Soundbite of song "Nude")
CHILLAG: What we're hearing right now is the song "Nude." It's nice, right?
PESCA: It's haunting.
CHILLAG: Radiohead held a contest on their website to remix the song. You could take the tracks and, you know, shuffle it up however you wanted.
PESCA: They gave it to you in raw form?
PESCA: To play with?
CHILLAG: So this guy, this video producer in Scotland, James Houston, he'd been kicking around an idea for years to basically get a bunch of old computer parts and make them sing. He was a Radiohead fan and "Nude" fit perfectly.
Mr. JAMES HOUSTON (Video Producer): Well, the alternative title of the song was "Big Ideas Don't Get Any," and I just liked the idea of all this old, redundant hardware trying to get big ideas and trying to do something that they're not quite able to do and not quite getting there, so, falling short.
CHILLAG: So, he gets the tracks and rather than doing, you know, a traditional remix like I think they intended, he programs the machines and makes them sing it.
Mr. HOUSTON: It's just a matter of collecting old pieces of hardware, you know, beg, borrow, or steal, and trying my best to, you know, not electrocute myself and not to blow anything up, but I managed to get there in the end, I think.
(Soundbite of dot matrix printer)
CHILLAG: That's a dot matrix printer.
Mr. HOUSTON: The printer itself was just - it was a matter of prodding and poking at the printer to try and get the good music out of it.
(Soundbite of scanner)
CHILLAG: Right here, hear that?
CHILLAG: That kind of bass? That's a scanner going back and forth.
CHILLAG: And the vocals have just come in.
CHILLAG: Yeah. That's hard drives. You know, hard drives, here, he'll explain.
Mr. HOUSTON: The way a hard drive works is kind of like a record player. So, you've got the disk and you've got the arm. You know, it seeks back and forward over it to try and find the data and the sound that you hear is the arm just scraping back and forward across the disk itself.
(Soundbite of ZX Spectrum computer)
PESCA: What are the beeps, beeps, beeps?
CHILLAG: That's a computer called the ZX Spectrum, which is basically like a Commodore 64, just an early home computer, and he's just kind of programmed it to play these bleeps and bloops (ph).
(Soundbite of song "Nude")
CHILLAG: I don't know, I find it very moving. I told James that I found that kind of a really weird sensation, to be really moved by something that computers were doing, and he said a lot of the feedback he's been getting from people is pretty similar to that.
Mr. HOUSTON: I've had quite a lot of people reporting that they started crying when watching the video, as well. I think it definitely touches people in a way that I'm finding it quite difficult to work out or get my head around.
PESCA: I know why. It's like the - what was it called? The land of forgotten toys? The land of lost toys?
PESCA: The technology is old. It no longer serves a function or purpose for us, so we discard it, but he's making us realize that there's something beautiful in it still.
CHILLAG: Right. Well, I think it might actually be something else. Like, I was thinking that you have these old machines and they want to sing, like he says, but they can't. Like, essentially, you can see them wanting to be human, and when you think about the "Turing Test," you know, basically the test of artificial intelligence.
When a computer can fool a man into thinking it's human, then you have artificial intelligence. I think, you know, machines today that make music, they are much more convincing. They sound more like pianos, and you can even simulate a human voice really well. These aren't really pulling it off, and I think that the farther they are from being convincing, the more it feels like they have an ambition to do it.
PESCA: Yeah. Now, do you know what Radiohead thought of the Houston remix?
CHILLAG: Yeah, they liked it. They posted it on their website and he actually - he's just kind of blow up on the Internet and had job offers to do video production, so it's really turned out well for him.
PESCA: Ian Chillag, BPP producer, thanks for sharing.
CHILLAG: You got it.
(Soundbite of song "Nude")
Mr. THOM YORKE: (Singing) And now that you found it, It's gone. Now that you feel it, You don't. It's gone forever.
So don't get any big ideas. They're not gonna happen. You'll go to Hell For what your Dirty mind is thinking.