Two months ago, I went into one of the more downmarket cell phone service providers. I had recently left my fancy smartphone in the back of cab, its only natural weakness. I viewed this as an opportunity, though, as I was tired of having a smartphone. I hated how rude and unobservant I had become, constantly checking social media every ten to 15 minutes as a nervous tick. And then there was the inevitable excess data charges I would get dinged with every month. I went into the small shop advertising "no contracts" with a mission: time to disconnect—I wanted a flip phone. As I walked around the shop, though, the siren call of the modern tempted. The taut, luminous screens of the newest Motorolas, Samsungs, and iPhones glinted and seductively purred all of their features: Instagram, Twitter, Spotify, Google Maps, connectivity, modernity.
By the time I reached the register, my weak-willed morals had crumbled. The now was too tantalizing. I asked for the smartest phone they were willing to give me for no cash up front.
"Certainly. We'll add that to your tab, said the chipper cashier. "Just going to have to do a quick credit check on you here, and then we'll get you up and running."
I gulped. "Sure, no problem. That's what it's there for, right? My credit, I mean. Check away, my good man."
"Well, Jordan, unfortunately, you're going to have buy the phone right now. It'll be $240 [€210], but you'll get a rebate of $80 [€70] in two months or so."
"Hmm. Um, you know what, how much is that flip phone over there?"
And that's how I learned the thin line between having good morals and having bad credit.
Two months into this flip phone life, and I'm glad that things worked out the way they did. I really like my flip phone. For one reason, it's a clunky embarrassment, making forgetting it in a cab more difficult. (Though not impossible—thank you, friendly Ottawa cab drivers.) Secondly, I can actually use it as a phone. I always found using my smartphone as a phone to be arduous. I found my arm going numb due to its weight during any lengthy calls. More frequently, the side of my face would end a call without my knowledge. Thirdly, as a craven addict to the lukewarm bath of jealousy and narcissism that is social media, it's nice to to be forcibly disconnected when I'm out of the house. Plus, the thrill of having 20 notifications on Facebook when you get home is like mainlining esteem. (Until you realize they are all birthday reminders and event invitations, and the cruel reality of our solitary existence in this universe comes crashing back down.)
Those are about the only differences, though. My beautiful flip phone is easier to remember, lighter, and more enjoyable to use as an actual phone, and while it's nice not being able to look at Facebook when I'm waiting in line at the bank or a coffee shop, I don't want to make it seem that I've achieved some sort of transcendental bliss by giving up touching a glass screen with my thumb. My mind is still the modern, muddled mess of doubts and anxiety. The only nature I'm communing with is my basic nature toward free-floating dread.
It's weird, though. When I'm on the bus and everyone around me is doing the inevitable phone retrieval from their pockets, I can't help but to pull mine from my pocket. It then takes me a second to realize that the only thing I can look at on my phone are the alarms that I have set. I see that soothing white light in my periphery, and I can't help but want to be soaked in my own self-edifying glow of data. It's like a yawn, apparently contagious because seeing somebody suck back a hearty inhale of oxygen reflexively reminds our brain that that hey, maybe we're craving some of that good stuff as well. Except instead of oxygen, seeing a phone reminds our brain that it craves… what exactly? Social media interactions? Stimulus? Public isolation?
Even stranger than that has been people's reactions to seeing my flip phone. The most common one is mockery—an incredulous "That's your phone?" as if I pulled out a can with a string attached that stretched out of the room—followed by an insinuation that I'm a drug dealer and that it's my burner. Thanks for nothing, David Simon.
After the initial burns and derision comes the second-most common reaction: generosity. The number of secondhand iPhones and Androids I've been offered could fill a small art gallery—they would be all glued together and shaped like an ear in a piece titled But Can You Hear Me Now. The concern is legitimately touching. People react to the sight of my flip phone as if the government has promised to match every donation made to assist my plight. "I have an extra phone at home, so you can just have it if you like," they kindly whisper as if I showed up for lunchtime ashamed that I only have brown paper bag filled with uncooked hot dogs.
These three actions—my hand reaching my pocket for a smartphone that isn't there, the mockery, the charity—reveal the true allure of the smartphone. Beyond the absurd computing power, the apps, the hi-def screen and camera is the simple fact that it is the smartphone is the norm. My co-workers and friends who insult and assist me can't imagine that I don't want a smartphone. It must be a mistake or misfortune that has left me bereft of what has become an exterior brain for most. What has happened is a technology has become so thoroughly ubiquitous that it's stopped seeming like a type of good or gadget but instead is closer to an appendage. The smartphone no longer needs to prove itself; its ubiquity is all the proof needed. My flip phone is a transgression to this, so it must be a mistake; it doesn't make sense—nobody would want one of those.
What frightens me is what happens when a transcendental technology is expected as the norm. We stop questioning or interrogating it. The tech and its capabilities become tyrannical. The values become instilled into the society that must cater or adjust to it. For the smartphone, these values include speed, communication, convenience, surveillance, and pleasure. When things do not adhere with these values, they are seen as dregs of the past instead of alternatives, as the cruel elimination of cab drivers throughout the world illustrate.
The smartphone is the key to an expansive parallel world of cheap rides, hot dates, and hilarious GIFs. It's a world that you can step into at any time while stepping out of whatever dank bathroom or boring lineup you happen to be in. It is a bright, beautiful endless room that unfortunately also obscures what lies outside of it. The people who are outside it, whether by choice or circumstance are obscured as well. They do not matter because they cannot be seen; instead they are something to be assisted into the world, and if they refuse, they are to be mocked and excised.
That's why I will continue to use my flip phone. It's a pebble in the shoe of the future. A reminder that there are still people who exist outside of the giddy, frictionless highway of convenience that an iPhone provides access to.
And mostly I'll keep using it because it's like 25 bucks a month.
Follow Jordan on Twitter.