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The Second Life of Old iPods

Why is it that old iPods are suddenly cool—and pricey again?
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(Photo: spilt-milk/Flickr)

(Photo: spilt-milk/Flickr)

I still look back fondly on my old iPod. It was always there for me, through high school classes, new friendships, and early break-ups. With its humble interface and click wheel, the iPod stands as a cultural relic, emblematic of a time when I still lived, at least a little more, in the physical world—back when sharing music meant splitting earbuds.

I’m not alone here. Many friends have expressed similar nostalgia; others have written about it far more poignantly.

So it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that, as has been the case with clothing and vinyl records, people are still very much interested in iPods. The disbelief lies in the cost: The iPod Classic can now be sold for twice the original retail price. Prices have soared so incredibly, the Atlantic’s David Sims points out, that an iPod Classic and an iPhone 6 cost the same on Amazon.

Why are people willing to pay more for these old, outdated electronics?

The iPod stands as something of a cultural relic, emblematic of a time when I still lived, at least a little more, in the physical world—back when sharing music meant splitting earbuds.

One possible answer can be found by looking back at a Pennsylvania State University study from last February, which determined, basically, that tech products’ "coolness" can fall prey to the same thing all hipster-centric items do: obscurity, or a lack thereof.

“Converging evidence suggests that in order for an interface to be rated as cool, it should not only be attractive and original, but also help the user assert his/her uniqueness or subcultural identity,” wrote professor S. Shyam Sundar, the study’s lead researcher. “[A]n old technology ... scored higher on subculture than all other dimensions, reflecting its abandonment by the majority and espousal by a niche group of users giving it subcultural appeal in recent years.”

Plus, from a technological standpoint, there’s a very real upgrade in storage capacity with the old iPod—something that’s apparently still valuable in the age of Spotify and cloud software.

It's pretty similar to the concurrent vinyl phenomenon in that way. As one 2011 Economist article suggests, vinyl works as a bragging point for music enthusiasts, a way to differentiate the die-hards from the uninitiated. Vinyl also offers a comparatively distraction-free listening experience, much like the iPod—at least when compared to the all-in-one iPhone.

This hipster-gadgetry trend certainly isn’t unique to music, though; old cell phones have also skyrocketed in price. The New York Daily Newsreports some used Nokia-esque cell phones are fetching as much as $1,300.

One boutique phone store, the French company Lekki, explains that someone’s cell phone “becomes an extension of yourself, so the nostalgia attached to these devices is very strong. In a time of extreme fast change [and] instability, people feel secure getting back to their old mobile phone,” says Maxime Chanson, the founder of Lekki. “They are attracted by the back to basics philosophy.”

Maybe there’s a beauty to simplicity. But when a new Gears of War 2 special edition Zune is listed at $1,000, you know there’s more than an interface or listening preference at play: There’s hipsterdom.