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Column: The flip side of hip

Maybe your next phone should be the castoff you tossed into your desk drawer



When I got my first flip phone a dozen years ago, it seemed so high-tech. I could call people while playing golf! I could send texts, even take pictures. The photos were a little fuzzy — one was either a butterfly or the Statue of Liberty — but who ever heard of a phone with a camera in it?

By last year, though, my miracle phone seemed about as high-tech as an anvil. My wife and kids loved their iPhones, but I refused to switch. I was the opposite of an early adopter: I was a tech laggard. 

Why? Mainly because I had seen too many smartphone zombies walking into traffic, texting during movies, posting photos of their meals, playing Candy Crush on the subway, and FaceTiming faraway friends, all while ignoring the people around them. So I held out. I hung on to my old dumbphone even after discovering that iPhone users have a secret color code to identify us laggards. When they text each other, their texts appear in blue, but flip-phoners’ texts are displayed in green, branding us as fuddy-duddies. 

I held out until my daughter texted me a picture I couldn’t receive. Lily is a published poet with an eye for striking images, but the high-res photo she sent was far beyond the four or five pixels my flip phone could handle. It buzzed, booped, and died. 

So I threw in the towel and got a smartphone.

At first my sleek black iPhone 6 reminded me of the monolith in 2001: powerful and a little scary. The T-shirted young genius at the Apple Store told me it had more computing power than NASA during the Apollo program. But he said I shouldn’t feel intimidated by it. “Baby boomers might be late adopters and slow learners, but you guys get hooked like anybody else.” According to the Pew Research Center, he’s right: More than two-thirds of baby boomers now have smartphones. That’s up 10 percent since 2016. I was a data point in that trend, a late but enthusiastic adopter. 

Today, less than a year after telling people I had no use for a smartphone, I can’t imagine living without mine. Like millions of others, I rely on my phone all day, using it as an alarm clock, TV set, web browser, notepad, stopwatch, thermometer, video camera, and jukebox. That’s pretty heady for a guy who remembers when the kids all crowded around the nerdy seventh-grader who brought a hand-held calculator to school in 1970. I love my iPhone so much that I even doze off with it under my pillow, letting podcasts talk me to sleep. 

A couple of months ago, just to make it official, I smashed my old flip phone to bits. I didn’t want to just hand it over to the guy at the Verizon store. It knew too much about me. So I took it out to the porch, wrapped it in a towel, and smacked it with a baseball bat. That was good old-fashioned fun.

It was also bad timing. That was the month websites and newspapers began running stories saying flip phones are cool again. 

“Going back to a flip phone will make you a happier and more successful person,” says J.D. Martens, who writes for The Hustle. Calling for a “digital detox” from smartphone addiction, Martens claims there’s only one drawback to ditching your smartphone for a flip phone: “You will have to accept being called a hipster.” 

That’s doubtful in my case: At my age, “hip” is usually followed by “replacement.” But just as I was getting used to my smartphone, early adopters were getting sick of theirs. 

Katie Reid, the 30-year-old director of digital media at an elite private school in Baltimore, went back to a flip phone after realizing that her iPhone had taken over her life. At first, she says, “it felt like something was missing — like a phantom limb.” But as the days passed, she felt less anxiety and more freedom. 

“There were inconveniences, but I found I liked being unreachable sometimes,” she says. “Instead of answering to my phone, I was getting more out of the in-between times I had to myself.” Now Reid loves her flip phone, even though her teenage students regard it as if it were a relic of some ancient civilization.  

Renouncers must learn, of course, to make do without some modern conveniences. They have to print out movie tickets and boarding passes at home. While driving, they’re forced to listen to the radio or play CDs instead of syncing their phones to the car’s audio system. They even use maps. And what do they do when they get lost anyway? Mooch off the rest of us. They pull over and look for somebody with a smartphone. 

Maybe there’s a happy medium — a way to be neither a laggard nor a hipster but something in between. A lagster. Somebody who wants to get the most out of her or his devices but still keep it simple. 

That’s my goal, and I’ve made friends both online and in line (at the supermarket) who think the same way. Together we’ve come up with a few tips for our fellow lagsters.

Don’t let peer pressure sway you. Your tech-forward friends may wonder why you don’t have an iPhone X. Your Brooklyn friends may ask why you don’t have a Nokia 3310. But as Lily texted me the other day, uBu. 

Stay at least a little retro. I’m typing these words on an old Acer PC that wheezes when I turn it on. It may be the last PC powered by kerosene. But the keyboard is an old friend. I’m keeping it. 

But don’t resist the goodies. Like podcasts. Less than half of Americans have ever listened to a podcast, and they don’t know what they’re missing. There’s no static, and there are podcasts for all tastes: science, Shakespeare, Broadway musicals, politics, crime, comedy. Whatever subject or hobby you love, there’s a podcast featuring smart people talking about it. As an 11-year-old kid, I fell asleep to Cincinnati Reds games on the transistor radio under my pillow; now I doze off to Effectively Wild, a baseball-nerd podcast that makes me smarter. You can’t get that on a flip phone.

Decide what your phone is for. Is it an extension of your work computer? Are you the kind of person who looks at spreadsheets over dinner? Do you need to check email or stock quotes minute by minute? Or is your phone’s main purpose to keep you reachable in case of emergency? Go with the simplest phone that meets your needs.

Help a hipster. When flip-phone users get lost and ask you for directions, help them out. It’s not their fault; they’re just a little behind the curve. 

• Kevin Cook is a member of the Rotary Club of Northampton, Massachusetts, and a regular contributor to The Rotarian. His books are available on iTunes.