Last summer my iPhone went kaput, the victim of a bass-fishing accident and a case that proved to be, upon close review of fine print, water-resistant rather than water-proof. The distinction was not semantic. When the screen turned fuzzy red plaid, a color and pattern better suited to a kilt than to liquid crystal, I knew it was over. I was back on the cellular market.
Truth be told, the drowning felt less like a tragedy than it did an intervention. My iPhone had been a saboteur, the seditious Wormtongue to my weak-willed Theoden: My attention span had contracted, my sleep hygiene had deteriorated, and my propensity for blithely stumbling into traffic had become an existential threat. I’d developed junkie-like behaviors, excusing myself at parties to take a quick bathroom hit of Facebook or Gmail. Worst of all was Twitter’s poisonous intravenous drip. One quick injection of its negativity — on line at the bakery, between innings at a baseball game — was enough to induce a lingering state of distracted dread.
Thus it was with considerable relief that I walked into a Verizon store and asked the salesman to show me his dumbest phone. He raised an eyebrow and led me to a remote corner, far from the iPhones and Galaxies and Droids. Three clunky flip phones stood on plastic stands, open at their hinges like steamed clams. I settled on an LG Exalt LTE flippie, a slim gray briquette the size and feel of a deck of cards. So long, Youtube. Fare thee well, Amazon. Like Nirvana and Clapton before me, I would reach new heights by going unplugged.
My flip phone’s primary purpose, or so I thought, was to reduce my reliance on devices. Freed from the gravity of social media, I envisioned ascending to a Thoreauvian plane in which I’d devour hardcover books, navigate by paper map, and listen solely to birdsong. Within a week, I realized how naive I’d been. Lurching my way through unfamiliar Boston for a lunch date — haphazardly guided by a sheaf of printed directions, which became obsolete as soon as construction knocked me off course — provoked the kind of rage-induced headache typically associated with airline customer service. My friend forgave my lateness, but I needed a workaround.
The problem was partially solved with an ancient Garmin GPS unit exhumed from my mother-in-law’s basement. The Garmin was an imperfect solution. Its dashboard-mounted suction cup didn’t quite suction, and it had the unfortunate habit of dropping its satellite connection at inopportune moments, such as when I was, you know, using it. It also couldn’t shed light on local traffic, washed-out roads, or speed traps (pour one out for Waze). But it had a rough command of North American geography, and a charger that plugged into the cigarette lighter, and it was mine.
More complications arose in the following weeks, each with its own irksome fix. In place of my podcast and audiobook apps, I opened my computer on the passenger seat while driving and plugged in headphones — forgive me, father, for this minor traffic violation. In place of AudioMemos, which I’d relied on to record interviews, I unearthed my Olympus ZOOM tape recorder. In place of my iPhone’s camera, I schlepped around my DSLR. (Although my flip phone has its own camera, its pictures have a pixelated, grainy quality, as though I’m forever chasing a Sasquatch.) Once, a single, sleek gadget fulfilled my every need; now I staggered through the world burdened with enough battery-powered crap to stock a RadioShack.
Yet I confess: there’s pleasure in the inconvenience. Years ago my now-wife, Elise, and I taught English in Bangkok — we met, in fact, at the school, and discovered Thailand together. Ugly Americans, we spoke only a few words of Thai, and blundered through life with a chipper, Griswoldian cluelessness. Unaided by smartphones, incapable of effective communication, and living in a distant suburb unserviced by Lonely Planet, we thrived on a sort of bumbling kismet. Each delight that we stumbled upon — the pickup basketball game with local college students, the bar with the Cranberries cover band — felt organic. Each morning dawned pregnant with unplanned adventure.
Such serendipity has mostly leached from the world. Yelpers choose our eateries, Google maps our routes, algorithms our music. Our lives are frictionless, lubricated by technology. Flip phones resuscitate the randomness. In the last year I’ve wandered into diners with unknown quantities of stars, listened to abstruse theological debates on rural Christian radio stations, participated in the anachronistic ritual of asking strangers for directions. Unable to hail an Uber or a Lyft recently, I called 411, which, in turn, routed me to a local taxi company, which sent a cab sometime before nightfall. Robinson Crusoe I wasn’t, but I felt a thrill of accomplishment nonetheless.
Of course, I’m constantly on the verge of relapsing. Elise often finds me scrolling Instagram on her phone, my face a blue-lit mask of shame and pleasure. I often use my wife as a crutch; just this week I called her lost from the road, in dire need of directions, like the crew of Apollo 13 frantically hailing Houston. And a few months ago, to both my disappointment and relief, I figured out how to access Gmail on my flippie — a functionality which, granted, requires so many convoluted steps that it’s basically impossible to use, but still sort of defeats the whole purpose of my experiment.
Still, I’ve become, I hope, a more present conversationalist, a more prolific reader, a less anxious human. Shackled by my atavistic T9 texting system, I spend less time staring at my phone and more time calling friends on it. Of course, I’m still a Twitter junkie whose life is bogged by all the usual distractions. (Take the phone, but you’ll be prying the laptop from my cold, dead fingers.) The difference, now, is that those distractions don’t hound me after the sun does down. I hadn’t realized how tethered I’d been to my work, and to the email umbilical cord through which its mandates entered my bloodstream. When I close my computer at day’s end, I do so secure in the knowledge that no demanding editor or aggrieved reader can disrupt a long walk with my dog. And next year, I’m thinking, I’ll graduate to a landline.
Moriz Jung, Telefonisch Es Gespräch (1907), the Metropolitan Museum of Art.