For eight months this year, I used a flip phone. For most of those eight months, I hated myself and everyone else.
Frankly, I’m embarrassed to write about this semifailed experiment. Disconnection has become the most congratulated, least convincing narrative gimmick of recent times, a widely excusable hypocrisy. A popular Instagrammer leaves the platform, only to return a month later (welcome back!); a tech columnist claims to read exclusively print newspapers for a month, yet tweets throughout (he’s only human!); pop renunciates in hipster enclaves nationwide grayscale their phones and #deletefacebook and demetricate their Twitters, but lemme just check this text real quick in the middle of dinner.
Meanwhile, many of media’s technophobic éminences grises, long spooked by anything that dings and therefore feeling pretty smug about the current techlash, now see fit to indulge in and promote their analog fantasies at tedious length in national publications, as if we, the hopelessly hyperconnected hoi polloi, care about cows in the countryside, silent retreats at which tears are cathartically shed, or—please, no—the original off-gridder himself and resurgent icon of the new tech-dystopian dark age, Henry David “Friends Totally Joined Me at the Pond All the Time, Guys” Thoreau.
Yet amid the stunts and self-delusions and Walden wankery, facts are facts: We are the first generation of cyborgs, and our soft, slack bodies are rejecting the foreign technology. You can feel the invasion, a monstrous new lifeforce-leeching limb—the glass plus silicon multiplied by cloudmagic that equals the thousand-dollar device sitting pretty in your pocket. Everything else, even the internet, is subservient; the smartphone is the augmentation, the transformation. At this point, so integrated into our consciousness, can it even be hacked off? We can numb ourselves and self-medicate, “go offline” for a time, but can we, like a trapped adventurer, self-amputate? I woke up one clear Saturday morning in January and thought: Well, can’t hurt to try.
The guy at the Verizon store looked confused. He was most certainly stoned. “A flip phone? We might have some in back.” He brought out exactly two. I took the uglier one, a Kyocera with big dad-size buttons; the point was to despise it. “Come back and tell me what it’s like,” he said, mistily. The friend I was with, suspicious but supportive, bought us midday drinks at the nearest dive. Thematic, see: throwing back at a grungy throwback. On the way to the bathroom, I reached for my iPhone. My hands closed around the Kyocera. Joy swept over. Standing at the urinal, I could already feel the neurons remapping. I couldn’t scroll Twitter! Next round’s on me!
Detox followed. For two weeks I had, or gave myself, an airy headache. I liked to palm my forehead, playacting the bedridden Victorian housewife with the vapors. Do I look sweaty to you? Nobody sympathized. My parents were especially cruel. To be fair, I’d forgotten to tell my mom about the switch; she, master of the family phone plan, had to find out from a poor Verizon rep. “Everybody on the planet has Apple phones, Jason!” she shouted, when we finally connected. “They’re called iPhones, Mom!” I’m not sure who hung up on whom, but when I flipped that phone shut? Such an atavistically satisfying snap.
Later, my mom would admit this: My voice sounded so much clearer through the Kyocera than it ever did on my iPhone. Makes sense—telephony was its primary purpose. And I was, for once, talking into the phone, not near-ish a fancy multipurpose brick. Didn’t help the cause, though. To her, my flip phone was not only proof of insanity but dangerous. What if my car died? What if I got lost? How could I summon the Uber?! Nothing could convince her that a slab of antiquity could actually work in 2018.
Motivating me in those early days, during the brain-shock of the new-old, was a thought experiment of my simple invention: Suppose the Dalai Lama had a smartphone. (News reports on the matter are inconclusive; what we know is His Holiness likes to tweet and has an eponymous app.) With it, he texts a friend, “r u busy this wknd?” The weekend passes, and he never hears back. Now, does the Dalai Lama get upset? Annoyed? Paranoid something’s happened? Suddenly convinced he’d be better off without this ungrateful disrespectful selfish loser of a “best” “friend” in his life anyway? Of course not. He’s the Dalai Lama. When people don’t text back, his eyes sparkle with the wisdom of centuries and, from deep in the belly, he giggles.
I wanted such peace. Texting has always been my particular sickness. It’s not that I’m a frequent texter; I am, much worse, a resentful one. Forget people who don’t text back (they can enjoy hell)—even prompt responders can blast my mood to utter shit if their messages aren’t phrased exactly to my liking. I knew that I had no chance of becoming the Dalai Lama of SMS with an iPhone, which practically forces you to resent your friends so that it might come out looking like the only reliable thing in your life. However, bound by the Kyocera’s character limit and thumbs unused to predictive text, perhaps I could rise above, self-transcend. As the Dalai Lama once tweeted, “It’s important that we shouldn’t be slaves to technology.”
When you walk around with a device that spasms pathetically and only receives half your messages, when thoughtless word pairings like “Sounds good” and “Sure thing” enter your vocabulary by T9 necessity, your expectations of others shift.
In a way, it worked. When you walk around with an old-dog device that spasms pathetically and only receives half your messages (out of order), when thoughtless word pairings like “Sounds good” and “Sure thing” enter your vocabulary by T9 necessity, your expectations of others shift. You realize you don’t care if Rob’s terse, Lauren’s late, Peter’s nonresponsive. So are you. Texting’s hard and unnatural. Maybe I’ll call them instead. (“Is everything OK?” they’ll immediately ask. “No, I’m dead!” you’ll want to say.) Maybe I’ll think about something else. You might, in those moments of recognizing phone-fueled negative thoughts for what they are—the silly derangements of technologized relations—even giggle.
There were other triumphs. I’ve long suspected that I have a brain lesion where my spatial awareness should be. It’s not just a lack, but a negative sense, of direction—the longer I’m somewhere, the more lost I get. Without a working GPS, I was forced to scribble rights and lefts on napkins and receipts and, when those pieces of paper inevitably disappeared, call up 21st-century Googlers from the road, sometimes multiple times per journey. So many needless loops were made, acquainting me with the special dread of coming upon the same Persian rug store from two hours ago. You simply unravel.
But over time, a map started to form. I began to see from above. Roads, impossibly, kind of lined up. At some point there’d always be a freeway. Arrivals became celebrated events. And people really came through. Frazzled at a gas station (across the street from those Persian rugs), I walked over to a stocky old biker who had a bushy white beard the envy of mall Santas everywhere. I told him I was looking for a beached whale carcass in a town that should’ve been not far from where we were. “They take down the signs to keep tourists out,” he explained. “You want to take the second left past the lagoon.” The lagoon! I had him repeat the word, knowing I wouldn’t hear it spoken again in years.
I felt like a wholer person. My mind was reabsorbing previously offloaded information and creating new connections. I was thinking more and better. My focus was improving. I thought I was breaking through.
In the end, I was not.
Day by day, the social inconveniences stacked up. New phone who’s this? Oh, I don’t have Venmo. Hey, can you call me a car? Sorry, I can’t Slack on this thing. No, I can’t look that up. Can you please pull up our tickets? A “friend tax,” as one person called it. Charming at first, soon after a major annoyance. Even the initially supportive soured. Several times a week: “When are you going to get a real phone.” Never a question mark in their voice.
The worst part was, the more others resisted, the more I resisted them. They were the cyborgs, and I, humanity’s last hope, my mind expanding before them. Their interventions began, even, to seem vaguely evil—agents, they were, of the all-powerful, locked-in network designed to fortify itself and crush nonconformers.
The idea behind the flip phone was to clear my head of tech-induced physic baggage. Instead, everywhere perceiving the effects of the self-reinforcing slave-state of technologia, I added to the mental weight.
I knew these bordered on conspiratorial imaginings. Even so, this wasn’t supposed to happen. The idea behind the flip phone was to clear my head of tech-induced physic baggage. Instead, everywhere perceiving the effects of the self-reinforcing slave-state of technologia, I added to the mental weight. I became more aware of the iPhone I didn’t have than I’d ever been of the iPhone I did have, a consuming absence. And it’s not like anyone around me was reevaluating their own dependencies—my small, secret hope—in light of my experiments in self-liberation. They clutched their phones ever more tightly to their chest, as if I might at any moment steal their precious prostheses and make myself whole again.
I don’t remember which day I made an appointment at the Apple Store to reactivate my iPhone. Sometime in August. “I had a flip phone for eight months,” I announced to the woman. She kind of nodded. Then I called my mom—she seemed relieved. Back at the office, some coworkers let out a breath, as if a bad smell had cleared. “Well,” one of them said, “maybe you can write about it.” I put the Kyocera in a drawer.
In the ’90s, Neil Postman taught us to ask of every piece of technology a single question: What problem was it solving? If the problem was real, you could feel more comfortable with the invention. The simple, ingenious test still works today. I’d argue on its basis that keyless ignition, for example, is not innovation. Not only does it not solve a legit problem, it creates a new one—some people don’t know their cars are running and die of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Tested against the smartphone, however, the question collapses. Of course the smartphone solves a problem—it solves a multiplicity of them. Every day it seems to solve more and more. By that logic, the smartphone is a noble, worthwhile technology. Yet the conclusion is unsatisfying. Nobody believes it entirely. On some level we may even wish for the opposite. To be shown, once and for all, not only that smartphones don’t solve real problems but that, like an accidentally left-on car, they might just strangle us in the night.
I had seriously thought, right up until the end, that I would never return to a smartphone. The only way to engage with technology, I’ve always believed, is to be a sideways skeptic about it. I don’t have a Facebook or Instagram. My Twitter’s a bad joke. “But you work at a technology publication,” people say. So I like the self-contradiction! It’s mirrored in our cultural relationship with technology, which we believe—which societies have always believed—is both killing us and bringing us together.
Untethering pretends the conflict is solvable. It’s a myth, a journalistic fake-out, a subtraction. It scares people and sends us back to the bad behaviors and comforts of the known. Our time is post-Postman. It’s not about whether technology solves problems but how. We’re first-generation cyborgs, and we’re sick. Don’t unplug us. Let us breathe fresh air.
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