The week of July 26, 2015

Your retro-chic flip phone won’t help you stay off the grid

By Molly Osberg

In the company of a certain class of young professionals in New York City—think MacBooks, seltzer water, carefully cuffed denim jeans in July—the fact that I use a flip phone makes for a pretty neat party trick. In these circles, the hardware you use is an important part of your overall positioning—people love to talk about their gear. If Android phones telegraph a certain obstinate (and weirdly politicized) devotion to customization and the latest iPhone a pedestrian—if glossy—level of purchasing power, my flip phone signals something akin to total defection.

People think I’m stoic, which is just fine with me. It makes me the kind of person who grows tomatoes on their urban roof or will someday build a tiny house in Arizona with their bare hands and be totally satisfied by a life spent reading every back issue of Harper’s magazine in reverse-chronological order. It’s always exciting when someone mistakes me for a virtuous person—I grew up in the Northeast, where self-flagellation is something of an official sport—but in truth I purchased my Samsung Gusto 2 more for its price tag than its ability to facilitate any desire I might have to log off.

In fact, I didn’t really want to log off at all. As I found when I picked up mine a few months ago, flip phones have changed remarkably little since I was 17, just under a decade ago. Actually, this one is nearly indistinguishable from the one I used to send my first text messages in high school. I don’t remember much about being a kid, but my texting-muscle memory is still wicked strong. Find me hunched over the keypad, trying to respond to the rapid-fire, conversational missives no doubt being sent from someone’s desktop iMessage window, pressing 15 separate buttons just to text like a teen (kthxbai!).

I don’t remember much about being a kid, but my texting-muscle memory is still wicked strong.

And, just like my first phone, this Gusto pretends to have a bunch of functions but really only has about two: call and text. Ostensibly it connects to the Internet, too, but trying to do that just feels like adding insult to injury. The ever-self-referential system of links and GIFs and group messaging is over for me, unless I’m physically stationed near Gchat, but my friends can’t seem to remember not to text me Twitter links. Every time I do receive an image—most often, an illegible one—I’m reminded what a small miracle it is. I have a lot of time to ponder that miracle, watching the “media message” status bar creep from zero to 100 percent.

Without Google Maps, I’m realizing I’ve been living the past five years as if it were a game of Age of Empires, where unexplored territories are dimmed out; the whole landscape outside my app’s field of vision has been obscured, and when I venture out of my neighborhood I find myself lost in a city I’ve lived for six years.

The most major blessing is that I no longer have to endure the iPhone’s hovering ellipses. I get texts, rather than the threat of texts, and they don’t appear next to whatever was said last. About once a week, my phone tells me it’s out of messaging memory, at which point I delete the whole batch. The canonization of my relationships, for the time being, is over.

If a thing could be convincingly said to be having a moment, low-cost feature phones like mine had theirs about a year ago. Rihanna was photographed with her face pressed to one. Anna Wintour, supposed high priestess of the fashionable and unself-consciously privileged, was bent over a burner at the U.S. Open, squinting to see the tiny blue screen; “Here Is Anna Wintour Using a Flip Phone in 2014,” scoffed New York magazine.

Being pictured with a flip phone may be interpreted as retro-chic, but it’s an act of conspicuous nonconsumption, like posting to Twitter about leaving Facebook.

At the time the New York Times referred to the flip phone, insanely, as “retro-chic,” somehow misplacing the fact that the so-called clamshell design was by far the most popular in the United States until about 2009. Celebrity interest in such stripped-down devices was interpreted as a reaction to nudes leaked through iButt, that event itself coupled with a generalized and ever-heightening anxiety about how intimate our relationships to our phones had become. Burners are, of course, favored by Walter White-types for a reason, but it isn’t as if flips are inherently more secure. Many, though sans 3G connections and Facebook Chat, still contain trackable GPS chips; texts and calls are just as capable of being caught in the government’s dragnet. And yes, my Gusto 2 does have a camera—two, in fact—that I suspect would be quite capable of taking romantically blurry dick pics. (I’d argue we don’t really need most of those in high-definition anyway.)

But this supposed relationship between big data and dumb phones is largely an affective, imagined one. When the researcher Kate Crawford drew a line between normcore—the high-fashion obsession with dressing like a Midwestern tourist or a total square—and surveillance culture, she interpreted it as an attempt to feign (though certainly not achieve) a kind of camouflage. The act of “blending in,” of sinking into a comfortable blandness rather than seeking to distinguish ourselves from the swarm, is a reaction—subconsciously or otherwise—to twin, complementary anxieties: the twitchiness that comes with being surveilled and the near-constant production of individuality that is often associated with the most recent iteration of the Web, the curated self always on display via Instagram and Facebook. How odd and somehow perfect, Crawford wrote, that “the cultural idea of disappearing has become cool at the very historical moment when it has become impossible” to do so.

Similarly, whether the desire to eschew a smartphone is rooted in a culture of security or self-help, it’s an issue more of style than of function. Being pictured with a flip phone may be interpreted as retro-chic, but it’s an act of conspicuous nonconsumption, like posting to Twitter about leaving Facebook. Unless you’re planning on being the next Maine hermit—or are, you know, Rihanna, surrounded by a willing army of IRL Siris—there isn’t really an opt-out mode. The same could be said of the idea of “logging off” more generally. Tabless Thursdays, digital fasting, phone stacks: Those are the luxuries of people who can sacrifice productivity and access in the name of their own psychic health.

The canonization of my relationships, for the time being, is over.

Because this is capitalism, whatever the flip phone so fashionably signifies in the current moment—nostalgia, leisure time, focus—has been assimilated into a separate line of products, and very nice-looking ones at that. GSM mobile phones, each as slim as a credit card, are marketed as “backup” or “travel” phones for the business and creative classes. Most notable is the Light Phone, your “phone away from phone,” according to its successfully backed Kickstarter page. It looks like something someone would make calls on in Her; just some glowing buttons set into a tiny white card, really: no texts, no apps. The idea is that it’ll tether to your “real” phone, making you available but not too available, reverse-engineering whatever self control you wish you had.

Recently, I was on a camping trip with some friends, one of them a few years older than I. We had no service in the Catskills; that fact alone, of course, inspired some lengthy campfire introspection. At one point my slightly wiser friend asked if we remembered that feeling of being away from the Internet too long, of spending the day with friends and needing to go home, dial up, and just “fall back into it.”

At the time I laughed, but I knew exactly what my friend was talking about. My flip phone may be halfway trendy, but it doesn’t make me a more focused person, and whatever ideas it contains about my supposed purity—purity being only the most extreme way we puritanically interpret being “offline,” as if such a thing were really possible—are inventions of the same market in which Android and Apple products act as stand-ins for personal taste. I still get ghost notifications and whip my little gray flip phone out of my pocket, only to find no one’s texted me; once or twice, though I hate to admit it, I’ve pressed my finger to those Twitter links my friends send.

Illustration by Tiffany Pai