When Anna Wintour debuted her flip phone in September at the US Open, it was time for a certain swath of New York media to freak out. In a Matter piece titled “The Coolest Girl You Know Probably Uses a Flip Phone,” Chiara Atik writes, “For a long time, having the most expensive new phone with the most impressive technological capabilities was a status symbol: now, it seems kind of desperate.” TIME went deep on a subset of “millennials who don’t have smartphones,” musing on whether or not it’s normcore and dropping some Forrester Research stats: “29% of internet-using American adults don’t use smartphones as their main phones. That figure includes 15% of 18-24 year olds and 13% of 25-34 year olds.”
This week, however, New York Magazine’s The Cut did these sites one better, with a report from the front lines of life without a smartphone: “My Week With a Flip Phone.” It is a journey into chillness — into a life where you don’t need to neurotically slide through Facebook, Twitter, and Tinder apps at parties. A world where you call people instead of texting, even to give directions. A world where you understand directions on a soul level!
It’s an amusing piece, and I understood the experience it described, because I am a millennial (technically, right on the cusp) with a flip phone — one of the 13 percent — and I am not ashamed. It’s an increasingly rare status. The only other people I know are my husband and one friend. (The latter, Sean Michaels, is nominated for a big Canandian book prize, the Giller, for his debut novel Us Conductors, so perhaps it’s good for creativity?)
Although the bulk of these New York-based articles have moved on from framing smartphone-free life as the sign of a Luddite holdout (The New York Times, 2012, in an article that quoted Nicholas Carr and Jonathan Safran Foer) to framing it as a “cool” alternative choice (Gizmodo’s “My Month With 2014’s Most Exciting Phone“), I can easily admit that the reasons I have a flip phone are mostly laziness, cheapness, not needing to app up my world, a love of figuring out directions myself, and general Luddite tendencies (I have written a whole anti-Netflix ode to the video store on this site). I wish it were about sphinx-like mysterious coolness and total chillness.
What is odd about these articles is that they come from a place where it is assumed that the smartphone is the norm. Look, smartphone culture is far different in New York and major cities than it is in other parts of the country. New York is a place where your smartphone is your friend, your companion, your only comfort during the drudgery of the daily commute, your instant guide to looking busy at a party, to knowing where you’re going, to making sure that you are available at every moment (to overwork), and to jump when your bosses tell you how high to do it. I can understand why people are attached to smartphones and addicted to them. But there are other parts of the country where you can go out to dinner and the phone isn’t sitting there like a totem of distraction. It’s been weird to see how something as simple as not having your phone with you during a meal feels like a rare pleasure.
And ultimately, not everybody has a smartphone. For one thing: they’re really expensive. I’ve been looking into it, and the initial expenditure is shocking to me. How do people afford and/or justify it? Then, regarding Apple products, it’s a lose-lose situation of predetermined obsolescence and keeping up with the Joneses, every year. I can remember watching the excellent FX series Justified — in a development that symbolized the financial evolution of Walton Goggins’ charismatic criminal Boyd Crowther, he upgraded to a smartphone. Generally, the show stuck to having its impoverished characters using flip phones because that’s what they could afford.
For me, the flip phone was a choice that I just never quite had the finances (or cared enough) to upgrade. I find the addictive qualities of the smartphone, and how they’ve changed the way that people are present in public in cities to be somewhat disconcerting. (Seriously, guys, how do you meet people these days? It seems impossible to do so face-to-face.) I got out of the dating game right before texting became a thing. I tweet when I’m at my computer. My Instagram feed is a collection of riveting photos of my cat at my house, taken with my husband’s work iPad. I may upgrade at some point — the recording capabilities of smart phones do seem really useful for journalism, and Instagram is the photo-a-day project I dreamed of as a kid — but I also know my limits, and my addictive tendencies. I appreciate spending time away from glowing screens, and I like walking through the city streets at a brisk pace.
It’s amusing that the flip phone has already flipped back to a status of “chic,” but I think that these flip phone trend pieces truly speak to something. We jump into the deep end with both feet when it comes to new technology. We assume it’s the new normal, and we let it become the new normal very quickly, without realizing what we lose along the way. But there’s a secret to technology: will it help your life, or will it subsume your life? If you want your life to move at a certain pace, you really have no need to cling to technology like it’s a necessary thing. In fact, you can take a step back. It’s not bad out here. Hey, I even have conversations on the elevator up to my office some mornings.