A flip phone is a retreat
“There is something compulsive about a telephone. The gadget-ridden man of our age loves it, loathes it, and is afraid of it. But he always treats it with respect, even when he is drunk. The telephone is a fetish.” Raymond Chandler, ‘The Long Goodbye’ (1953)
Up in Red Feather Lakes in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, the nights are so dark you can see more stars than you ever thought existed.
“ A million fireflies hovering over a deep blue lake. An infant’s blanket decorated with stars. A thousand-lane highway full of headlights. A giant sieve leaking grains of shining sand.”
That’s how I described the four nights I spent there on a writing & meditation retreat. You can’t go on Bumble though, there’s no cell reception, so I wouldn’t bother going.
In all seriousness though, having used my iPhone every single day for the past year, how on earth would I cope without it for four days?
One year earlier…
“Now we’ve got the SIM out of this, we can just pop it in your iPhone, and voila. It’s good to go. What would you like me to do with this?” The man in the crisp blue shirt was looking through his thick-rimmed wayfarers at The Brick — my trusty Nokia which had seen me through university — like an archaeologist who’d just found a coin from 2002.
“I’ll hang on to it.” I was sure he would have put it in the trash if the Apple Store didn’t have the policy of denying its existence (“we don’t poop… we’re iPhones”).
“Yeah, I’m just using the iPhone temporarily”. I was working as a private tutor in London to pay the bills, to allow me to pursue theatre. There’s only so many times you can get lost trying to decipher the sweaty hand-drawn map of Chelsea on the back of your hand, before you decide that having the internet might be pretty cool. “I’ll put the SIM back in the Nokia in a month, just to make sure I don’t become like everyone else, on it the whole time!” He arches an eyebrow and nods at me like you nod at your step-Dad when he says he’s going to start going to weekly spoken-word slams. “Won’t I Ben?” I call upon my brother whose offer of an old iPhone had cut from beneath me my standard refrain “oh I just don’t think it’s worth the money”. But he’s just nodding too.
Fifteen years earlier…
“Nooo — I hate Screen Free Days. I wanna play Stars!”
Me, when my totally-not-cool parents decreed that today we weren’t allowed to use screens that day.
Stars. Few things were more exhilarating aged 7 than playing Stars. You could play football, on your computer, on your own. You didn’t need even need to hang out with that kid from down the road.
“Noooo — I don’t wanna do a Screen Free Day.”
After a while of complaining, Ben & I would finally face reality. “Why don’t you play some board games?” says Mum. “Monopoly?” I say. A smile creeps onto Ben’s face and he nods.
Back in the mountains…
The screens are a little different now. The iPhone 6s boasts a 4.7” Retina HD display that is as malleable to the touch as child’s playdough and can cash out dopamine faster than a Vegas casino. So yeah — Wayfarers was right: I never took the SIM card out.
But up in the mountains, I knew it was time. I’d need an alarm and timepiece though. Hey — why not dig out that old flip phone I’d used when travelling across the US during the 2016 election?
It turns out that four days without an iPhone did my head a world of good. I felt more present, my concentration improved allowing me to focus on my writing and I connected more deeply with the group of people I was with.
But what if that was just the meditation retreat: would it be the same in the real world?
A flip phone is fun
“You used to call me on my cell phone.” — Drake
Coming down the mountain, I needed to get in touch with a friend in Boulder, CO, where I’m now based for the summer. Texting using T9 predictive is pretty tedious, so I gave her a call (that’s right folks, a telephone call). She actually picked up. At the end of the call I flipped down the lid of the clamshell. It felt great. You should try it some time.
“Bye Mum, Love You”. Boom. Look around like you’re the Wolf of Wall Street.
I went back to England in the Springtime to pick up my stuff, and ran into my old uni pal Tushar. I showed him the LG, and told him I was planning to start a challenge: to give up my smartphone for a week each month for the rest of 2018. He thought there might be some method to this madness, and decided it would be fun to jump on board. One problem: Tushar didn’t have a flip phone. So we went to the Market.
We decided we should pick a week Monday-Sunday, where we hand over our smartphones to a friend to keep us honest, and decided it would be nice to get the month off to a fresh start. Thus First Week Flip Phone was born.
You can hear our adventures in our podcast: Flip Phone Diaries.
A flip phone is learning to use your smartphone better
“Creativity comes from limits, not freedom” — Jon Stewart
The word “retreat” is interesting because it has a negative interpretation — giving up, running away — as well as a positive one — a change of scene, reflection.
At school, my friends Greg & Aaron used to tease me, calling me a “neo-Luddite”. As well as eschewing the smartphone, I wanted to cut down on social media (tick) & watching internet porn (took a little while, but tick). A couple of months ago, over a Transatlantic call, Aaron said “man, you were right.” I agree, some of the dangers of technology are becoming evident, as more people are starting to realize. But I disagree that I understood it then. My criticism back then was coming from a place of fear — fear of the unknown.
First Week Flip Phone is a retreat in the positive sense. It says: “Technology can be so awesome! But right now I’m not making the most of it. I’m going to have a change of scene to help me understand and appreciate it better.” And boy do you appreciate Google Maps again when you‘ve been lost on Chicago’s interstate with just a one-page printout and your trusty flip phone for company. (And I know y’all appreciate Uber because it keeps me off the road.)
I’m full of optimism and gratitude for what tech can do to automate mundane, productive tasks to free us up for creative endeavors. That’s why I’m here on a Fulbright in America learning to code — and I hope to help other people to make exciting things with tech.
But gratitude can quickly become entitlement. I sat opposite a girl in the Apple Store in Chicago, who simply could not fathom the idea that her iPhone wasn’t working. She said she dropped it on a night out. I thought it looked like she’d dropped it on a mountain expedition. “Are you sure you can’t get it to work?” It literally looked like Optimus Prime had been to the bathroom (yay for iPhone scatology!). “I’m sorry Madam, there’s nothing we can do. You’re going to have to pay for a new one.” She sighed and reluctantly nodded, and then proceeded to pull out another iPhone to tap away on while they took payment. You see that a lot, when something bad happens in life, as it will, the instinct is to reach for the smartphone.
I’m guilty of this complacency too: “10 minutes for an Uber — are you kidding me?!” Or at my worst: “How do I still not have a girlfriend? I swipe 10 times a day on Tinder. I’ve even got OK Cupid. No one gets OK Cupid.” And when something mildly embarrassing or shitty happens, like missing a train because it left a minute earlier than my phone said, I too will reach for the iPhone like: “this literally cannot be possible.”
But when it’s taken away, the gratitude quickly returns. In fact the possibilities are so great, it can be somewhat overwhelming. That’s what the next three weeks are for: to take advantage of the specific benefits you’ve realised. Here are a couple of examples from my first First Week Flip Phone.
1). I found it refreshing only having the contacts I had chosen to manually add to my flip phone — mainly Chicago folks I thought I would actually need to contact that week. I decided it would be cool to be able to filter my iPhone contacts by location — so I discovered Groups on iCloud & categorized my contacts.
2). I discovered that I didn’t need to delegate my choice of music to Spotify’s algorithms. Since getting my old 160GB iPod Classic repaired for First Week Flip Phone, I’ve since enjoyed picking my tunes again.
I’m excited to hear what change folks like Tushar, who have more deeply developed smartphone habits, might be able to make in their lives through First Week Flip Phone.
A flip phone is like real life
“No man is an island” — I think Jon Bovi Jovi said that
When was the last time someone asked you for directions? If it was the kind lady walking her dog in Humboldt Park who pointed me in the right direction to get home that night, it was three weeks ago. Again Madam, my thanks. For the rest of y’all, it’s probably more like three years. We’re all self-sufficient now, aren’t we? We can just Ask Google.
When we think about the smartphone displacing human skills, people sometimes worry about the Decline of Mental Arithmetic, or the Demise of Useless Fact Cramming. Whilst I’m obviously devasted that my ability to recall the only movies to have won all 5 major Oscars is no longer valued by society (It’s “It Happened One Night”, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “The Silence of the Lambs” by the way), I’m more concerned by the more subtle social skills which our generation may not be developing: awareness of others, appropriate expeectations, patience.
We still live in a social world. Success can’t come from within: every successful artist I know once had to ask for help. And sometimes success doesn’t come immediately.
So where does that put the flip phone? It’s not always fun: spending an hour manually copying over your contacts, or having to wait to retrieve those awesome photos you snapped isn’t my idea of it at least. But it is real life.
That said, we know that this can make the smartphone detox seem a little daunting. Many young people would love to give it a go, but fear difficulties, from feeling isolated to simply not knowing how to get a damn flip phone up and running. If this is you, we want to support your journey and to share in your unique experience. We invite you to visit firstweekflipphone.com to get started.
A flip phone defies impossibility
“You can’t be that kid standing at the top of the waterslide overthinking it. You have to go down the chute.”- Tina Fey
We’re doing it.