I started flirting with the idea of getting a flip phone while watching a TikTok livestream of someone shaving a grape at 2 a.m.
It was a new low. After years spent tracking trends and celebrity outfits in my job at Vogue, the constant work day scrolling for new material on social media had metastasized into scrolling away my off hours.
The symptoms of using my phone too much started to needle into my life. I couldn’t sleep. I’d wake up in the middle of the night and check my phone, as if I were a new mother with a newborn. And for what? To see the thong that Bella Hadid decided to step out in? To end up in the underworld of Instagram Reels of street fights and failed Parkour moves?
It was exhausting. Also, why did I have this Quasimodo hump on my neck? I was once a good kid with good posture. Well, this is what happens when you are seduced by the LED light. I was living in a virtual “Groundhog Day.”
Things began to change when I went back to my parents’ house in my New England hometown. After a day of working (and mindlessly scrolling), I tossed my iPhone out of reach and joined my mother on an excursion to McDonald’s for iced coffee. As we pulled away from the fast food joint, I caught a glimpse of something brown prancing around a wooded plot of land across the highway.
In all the years I had lived there, I had never seen a deer in my town. Why was that? Had they been there all along while my head was bent so far down over a screen that I never noticed?
Another deer appeared, and another. Soon, a herd was milling around. My mother and I sat in the car for 10 minutes, watching them graze. Phoneless and filled with a sudden, righteous happiness, I imagined a future in which I would tell my children, “Get off your damn phones and look around!”
Feeling like I had experienced a religious awakening, I told my mom to drive straight to Walmart. There, I asked an electronics employee to show me the flip phones — or rather, “the phone that old people use.” He led me to the sole offering: an Alcatel powered by the pay-as-you-go service TracFone. I bought it for roughly $50, plan included.
I chose not to activate internet, out of fear of relapsing. It was devoid of fun — no Instagram, no TikTok, no Twitter — except for a lo-fi game, Snake, in which the player uses the scroll key to operate a serpent whose tail grows as it eats.
I made a deal with myself. I still needed my smartphone for work, but I would use my flip phone when I ventured out into the world and on weekends. At first, the results were great. My Alcatel was a “dumb phone,” a Dostoyevsky-“The-Idiot”-of-phones that helped me see the simplicity in the world. Hell, I was having a spiritual moment. The first week I had my flip phone, I read a book. A whole book! In a week! Nothing like this had happened since I was forced to read a celebrity autobiography for my former job.
Everything seemed possible until my third week away from a touch screen, when I began to feel the pain of relying on an archaic device. One night, while I was out, I found that I had hit my 80-text-messages-a-month limit. Remember those? This is what happens when you can no longer write sonnets over iMessage. Also, you’ll have to call me and describe that meme you’re trying to send, because my phone doesn’t do visuals.
There’s no denying that I’m more engaged with the world now that I’m not attached to an iPhone every minute of the day. But that’s because without access to Google Maps, I’m getting lost in the world. I now own a map of Manhattan. You know, the paper kind, just in case I don’t follow my handwritten directions for the destinations I need to get to during the day.
When I open the map, I look like a confused French tourist from the ’90s who’s exploring the glorious Big Apple. Instead, I’m a longtime New Yorker who’s late for a work meeting and pathetically attempting to navigate the Lower East Side.
In addition to the unwieldy map, I’ve collected an albatross of vintage tech: an indestructible Walkman Sport CD player like the one I had in high school. I have only two CDs: Natalie Imbruglia’s “Left of the Middle” and Madonna’s “Ray of Light,” which used to be my favorite Madonna album, until I recently listened to it all the way through.
Most of the time, I hate the inconvenience of my flip phone. It’s cumbersome. It has made me into a fool with a bag full of vestigial tech and a map four times the size of my head. But then I remember how much I hated my dependence on the smartphone. Not to mention my tech-neck hump.
When I call my mom from my flip phone, she reminds me about the deer. “Your phone takes away from your periphery,” she says. OK, but you know what else also takes away from your periphery? A bulbous CD player, a paper map and my faltering dignity when I have to ask someone, “Which way is Bowery?” Plus, doesn’t my mom understand that there are no deer in Manhattan?
I tell her this with my flip phone held to my ear, not multitasking and tapping away as I used to do on my iPhone. I can feel my body tilt into the speaker — or maybe that is the weight of my CD player — and I feel unusually close to her.
Liana Satenstein is a journalist in New York.