For the last four months, I have been the willful owner of an LG B470 flip phone, the most basic model AT&T offers. Allow me to list the capabilities of a phone like this. There’s T9 texting, programmable speed dial, and imperviousness against water, impact, and most nuclear weapons. It boasts a 1.3-megapixel camera that makes every picture look like a bad photocopy of itself.
Not many people in this day and age stand by such an obsolete piece of technology. I assure you, my reason for switching from a finally paid-off iPhone to a geriatric flip phone isn’t a particularly glamorous one.
Last semester, I became involved with an older guy, a filmmaker in his late 30s whom I’d known a while through mutual friends. He had bushy brown curls and poetry tattooed on his thighs. He played the banjo and left his socks all over the floor. He respected me. I liked him. He had a flip phone.
But when we’d message about meeting, he was often so slow to reply that our conversations felt like they were being carried out by an electronic horse-and-buggy. I would respond immediately when his named popped up, and then wait again, sometimes for days. He quickly started to seem unreachable—and, consequently, unreadable, like he was light-years rather than miles away in his messy Brooklyn apartment.
I liked him, so I got attached, and I panicked. None of our communication felt casual anymore. While I’m typically quick to correspond, I soon found myself spending hours wording and rewording emails to him in order to come across as the perfect mix of interested yet aloof, eager but not too much so.
Most of my bandwidth in the not-relationship was spent trying to appear distant, and I always thought I could do a better job of it. And against the backdrop of the whole scene was that flip phone. I was sort of inspired, I think, by his ability to manage without smart technology, to be more or less analog in a world so digital. I wanted to be analog—to need less, to care less. So, the day after Thanksgiving, I went with a bewildered friend to the AT&T store and asked for a downgrade.
My flip phone quickly became its own gag. Friends and family laughed at how it could only store 200 SMS messages at a time (trust me, that’s not a lot) or go a week without being recharged. I found myself having to defend the switch to classmates and strangers alike, so I bragged about how I relied on my own sense of direction without Google Maps to help, or how I no longer wasted life hours and brain cells on Instagram and Snapchat. I told people my real-life relationships had become things like “focused” and “intentional” which, frankly, couldn’t have been further from the truth.
I stopped texting people because it was too hard, and then I stopped responding, too. I never knew when the phone rang—the vibration tone could make Manhattan tremble, so I kept it on silent. I stopped taking pictures, and I eventually stopped noticing things interesting enough to photograph. For better or for worse—mostly for worse—the phone had completely changed the way I interfaced with the world. Of course, it didn’t change the way I interfaced with that guy, or the attachment I felt to him that felt so irrational and problematic. The arrangement eventually ended. But I kept the phone—whether out of stubbornness or shame, I don’t know. I didn’t understand the link between the anxiety of the relationship and the exaggerated gesture of that LG, so I handled them separately.
Months passed. Sometimes I’d call friends in a panic and ask them to navigate me somewhere or look up how the trains were running because I couldn’t do it myself. On the subway, I had to check my email on my computer. Everything was forced and inconvenient. Even still, I told everyone I pitied all the gullible smartphone users, the seeming thousands of them I passed every day, attached to their technology with an umbilical cord. I’d made myself unreachable and helpless, sure—but at least I didn’t use an iPhone, right?
It wasn’t until one day last week when my younger sister was visiting that I understood there was collateral damage of the LG B470. I’d just T9ed a typical one-word text and flipped the phone shut. My sister briskly gestured to it and asked, “Do you know how hard it is for Mom and Dad to get ahold of you with that thing? They really miss talking to you how they used to.”
My sister instantly gave me the reason—and the freedom—to give up the schtick I’d been keeping with that dumb phone, the one that said it’s not cool to be emotionally invested in things or relationships, to have instantaneous access to information, or to communicate with people earnestly and often. I wanted to be out of touch from other people to show I didn’t need them—a choice I’d unintentionally made on behalf of everyone who loved me too.
We are encouraged—as Columbia students, as young people, as burgeoning New Yorkers—to cultivate our independence and overcome our vulnerabilities as we suit up to enter the world. But that process, however noble, can be an isolating one. These elaborate (and celebrated) fronts we so eagerly live behind have the potential to harm us and, however unintentionally, our relationships with others. I was so determined to be unaffected by that guy and that relationship that I forgot it’s okay to like stuff.
I switched back to my iPhone. The first thing I did was text my dad a bright red emoji heart. The task was once again so simple I could hardly believe it—a few easy swipes on the screen and he knew I was thinking about him, even from thousands of miles away. The flip phone was an experiment, a working hypothesis I undertook and eventually rejected. And I swear, I have never been happier to be proven wrong.
Harmony Graziano is a Columbia College junior who can now T9 at the speed of light. Her ego about her phone has once again been dwarfed by her actual phone bill. She just re-downloaded the Gmail app, so drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. Striking Chords runs alternate Tuesdays.
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