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The Art of the Flip Phone: Reflections on Disconnecting

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From December of 2015 until July of 2017, I owned and operated a flip phone. Or put another way, for one year and six months, I was a radical youth. This is only slightly melodramatic, for in this modern era the absence of a smartphone in one’s pocket or purse is quite unusual. “Is that your real phone?” they will ask you when you pull it out. “Why?!” they will demand. And some (hipsters, mostly) will comment with awe, as if admiring a fresh tattoo and not a ‘90s communication device. Such a novelty it is, that it may become part of your identity, as it did for me. I am still known to  people in some parts as “flip phone Gabe.”

The flip phone has become a radical notion because of all that a smartphone offers (everything from a camera, to games, to video chat, to navigation; from Facebook and Google to Uber and Spotify). To go without a smartphone means to go without these marvelous things—it is a kind of self-imposed handicap, a self exclusion, a limiting of possibility.

According to Statista, 70% of the US population (224 million people) owns a smartphone. Smartphones have become cheap and accessible to most everyone, and frankly, it doesn’t make much practical sense, unless you are old and technologically challenged, not to take advantage of the services they provide.

Yet back in 2015, I found myself wanting to get  rid of mine. I found myself endlessly scrolling through Instagram, unable to resist the frequent urge to Google random questions, anxiously and regularly checking my phone for messages, constantly taking pictures, and, sometimes, simply staring blankly at my home screen. I found myself doing these things and hating the fact that I was doing them. I felt that the allure of the glowing box in my pocket outweighed my ability for self discipline, my ability to (cliche alert) be present in the real, physical, material world consisting of tangible human beings and three-dimensional natural phenomena. My discontent grew such that one day I up and ordered the LG Revere 3, a stylish black flip phone boasting the abilities of  “sending text, picture and voice messages” and “easily fit[ting] in your pocket.” Ah yes, I thought, this is much better.

And life became notably simpler. Empty moments, rather than interjected by a screen, remained empty. They lent themselves to day dreams, to a study of the surroundings, to calling someone up for a chat out of the blue. Random questions, rather than instantly Googled, lingered in the mind, to, perhaps, later resurface for answering. Without the ability to navigate on the fly, I learned my city’s map like the back of my hand, and now I can take you anywhere you like in Atlanta with my eyes closed.

Occasionally I would be stranded somewhere without transportation and think, “Damn, I wish I had Uber,” or I’d get terribly lost driving in the middle of rural-nowhere without the ability to use Google Maps, or need desperately to contact someone over Facebook, but alas, did not have access Facebook. Yet for the most part, the ubiquity of smartphones provided me a kind of herd immunity. That is, I was always with or around people with smartphones and could therefore enjoy their benefits without owning one myself. A friend could call an Uber, get directions, or contact whoever needed contacting, while I basked in an unburdened life, with the endlessly gratifying ability to end phone calls with a dramatic flip.

This all came to a tragic end this summer when my phone disappeared in the back seat of an Uber. It’s disappearance conveniently coincided with my growing involvement in grassroots activism, which, relying heavily on smart phones for organizing, communicating, and collecting information, had started me thinking about returning to the normal world. And so it seemed as if the phone-eating Uber was only ushering in the inevitable. The writing was on the wall.

Yet, before making the switch back, under the pretense of trying to recover my phone (of the flipping variety) from Uber, I allowed myself an entire month of no phone at all. It was a rather wonderful month, opening up to a whole new level of disconnectedness. I felt as if I’d moved on to a more expert version of the game I’d already been playing. All of a sudden, there  was no expectation of reachability at all. Before I was free of Messenger, Skype, Snapchat, etc. Now I was free from everything but face to face interaction. It felt as if I were getting a taste of adolescence in an earlier era. It was: “Mom, I’m going out, and I should be back around ten,” and then heading out into the world, unreachable, untrackable, and, thus, entirely free. If I said, “I will meet you at this place at this time,” you and I hoped we’d find each other there, but if not, oh well. Over this month, I remembered why I’d set out on the flip phone experiment to begin with—because, though disconnected life has serious limitations, it makes possible a beautiful and wholesome peace of mind.

When my month had run its course, I could no longer justifiably sustain my phoneless situation. I grudgingly found and activated an old iPhone of my brother’s, clad in a sickeningly orange case of his choosing. I grudgingly installed a thousand apps and gave all the major global corporations access to my location, free of charge. Now, like you, I scroll through Facebook on the toilet; I am accessible at the touch of a button; I take pictures of very stupid things. I have rejoined the sheeple. The only difference, really, is that now, when I feel the urge to extract my phone from my pocket, I will occasionally think back on my flip phone days. Sometimes, when this happens, I’m able to muster the strength to overcome the urge for cellular extraction and leave it in my pocket. On these occasions, after these small victories, I will sit a revel in the moment, as we all should, but rarely do.

Photo courtesy of the author

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2 Comments

2 Responses to “The Art of the Flip Phone: Reflections on Disconnecting”

  1. Marvin Carroll on November 4th, 2017 12:01 am

    Hey Gabe! That was a pretty nice read! You’ve made me want to start searching high and low around my house to find one! Hahahahaahah!!!! I’ve got a couple of old ones around here somewhere, but a flip phone would be a jewel to find! Darn! As if I didn’t already have enough to do these days….., now I’m on another mission to find this freakin phone! Hahahaha!!!! Thank you my friend! Thanks a frekkin’ lot! Hahahaha!!!! I didn’t know how much I’ve missed those little things until now! CRAP! Hahahahaahah!!!! The hunt begins!

    [Reply]

  2. Williams Popa on November 4th, 2017 4:30 pm

    I absolutely loved your article Gabe. I won’t be getting a flip phone but I do practice mindfulness everyday and some days I leave my phone in my room and have 24 hours away from all the technological noise that our world is now filled with. It’s nice to be able to appreciate life for what it really is rather than be consumed by an unending stream of instant gratification. Great article!!

    [Reply]

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