If I told you I used a flip phone, how long would it take for you to stop judging me? Don’t worry, I’m accustomed to the laughing, the giggles, the snorts, the general incredulity. I’m a long-time flip phone user, so I’ve heard it all. I’ve heard people insult my flip phone with derogatory names; a relic, a burner, an old man phone. I’ve been asked if I live off the grid. I’ve been told I need to “get with the times.” I’ve been given advice by friends and acquaintances alike that I need to move on from my “dumb” phone.
Or at least, that’s what most people told me during the Obama administration. Then, in 2016, America elected the next president—the one with the hair. Though my flip phone was still laughably out-of-date, people suddenly didn’t seem to think using one was such a terrible idea. To my surprise, some people started telling me, “That’s smart!” That’s right, I changed nothing about my technological lifestyle, but my “dumb” phone had become “smart.” I went from dope with a burner to the shrewd wielder of lesser technology after just one electoral upset. Did we maybe learn something around that time about how our constant engagement on social media chipped away our sense of empathy, eroded our collective ability to agree on what’s the truth, affected our mental health for the worse, upended our fragile democracy, and manipulated the fabric of our being? Who am I to say? I’m no tech morality guru, I’m just a guy with a flip phone.
Lately, though, I’ve felt another new attitude shift from people seeing me with my flip phone, that is, with quivering envy and a sense of longing. It’s like they stepped in gum, and I didn’t. I see hope buried under their pessimism; the feeling that if this guy can live life without a smartphone, maybe I can too.
Surviving a global pandemic can have that effect. Covid gave everyone a chance to rethink the relationship they have with their phone, and now’s as good a time as ever for a collective reconsideration: Do we really need smartphones to function in this world?
I’ve always felt smartphones were a bit much. Access to my email everywhere I go? No, thanks. I’d always have one eye on my inbox. Scroll my Facebook feed at the doctor’s office waiting room? I’d rather bring a book (also—have you been on Facebook lately? It’s just ads and pictures of kids I never met.) If I’m out and about and I can’t remember the name of that one actor from that movie, I’m comfortable waiting to look up the answer on Wikipedia when I get home, and by then, I’ve usually stopped caring who that actor was (it was Dylan Baker).
The truth is I’ve usually lagged behind the tech zeitgeist. If I’m not late to the game, I bypass new developments altogether. I never used a PDA, or a Blackberry, or a Kindle; I was gifted an iPod, but I sold it immediately; Alexa seems flagrantly invasive to me; I never got a FitBit, never joined Twitter, never invested in cryptocurrency (or Beanie Babies, for that matter); I used to have a microwave, but now I don’t. But I am not a luddite. I’m writing this article on my Mac laptop like any other urban working creative.
I do, however, value time away from screens. I’m in front of a screen all the time for work, for writing, for communicating, for getting the news, for discovering new music, for buying stuff, for playing chess, for looking up the weather and synonyms and hummus recipes and what day of the week my birthday is going to fall on next year (Monday? Gross!). Screens are ubiquitous and addictive, so it’s easy to default to using a screen if I have access to one. Switching to a smartphone would enable my worst instincts; using a flip phone keeps me grounded and alert as I roam planet Earth.
You might be asking, “But Zachary, how do you get by in life without a smartphone?” To which I say, it’s actually pretty easy. It’s also really easy to not try heroin if you’ve already never tried heroin. And like heroin, having a smartphone might feel good in the short term, but over time becomes a real drag on one’s emotional health.
That’s not to say I haven’t experienced a fair amount of hiccups being the only flip phone user I know. It can be annoying for me when everyone assumes I use a smartphone, but it’s also annoying for everyone else. If I need to scan a QR code to get the digital menu at a restaurant that’s gone “paperless,” I have to humbly ask for a paper one anyway (there usually is one). Flip phones also haven’t exactly mastered the functional art of group texting (a common phrase of mine is “Can we switch over to email?”). I’m told my flip phone will work in the Western Hemisphere, but not the Eastern Hemisphere, which is perfect if I want to visit the Panama Canal and not so perfect if I want to visit the Acropolis.
GPS is the big feature that some people tell me they wouldn’t know how to live without, and I admit it would come in handy more often than not. But I’ve been able to work around not having GPS my whole life by—get this—looking up directions on my laptop before leaving the house. Seems crazy, but it works every time.
I’m not trying to convince anyone to stop using their smartphone, but I’ve had a front-row seat to people’s evolving attitudes on smartphones versus flip phones, and from what I can tell, the honeymoon period is long gone. I’m sensing that some people are experiencing a tech-induced burnout and they want out. For anyone yearning to pivot back to a “dumb” phone despite a growing dependence on their “smart” device, just remember that it’s possible and it’s not that hard. If I can manage living without a smartphone, anyone can.