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How to deal with the computer in my pocket

A family history through flip phones
Caitlin Whyte
A family history through flip phones

No matter how many times it was suggested to me, I told everyone I would never watch Black Mirror, a science fiction TV series that deals heavily with the future of technology. I knew it would freak me out; I am already hesitant about technology. But as I was scrolling through Netflix one afternoon, I decided to give it a shot.

I watched a few episodes. Then I deactivated my Facebook, deleted Instagram from my smartphone, and logged out of my Twitter account. I even blocked and on my phone to keep myself away.

And I’ve even been thinking of making another jump backward since then, back to a flip phone. Honestly, I wasn’t sure if it was even possible to get a non-smartphone anymore, but a Google search showed me they do indeed still exist, some starting at just six bucks a month.

I wanted to talk to some people about how to deal with the computer in my pocket. Mike Johansson is a senior lecturer of communication at RIT. He politely told me switching to a flip phone might not be the best way to curb my social media woes. He said technology isn’t a problem in itself, it’s more an issue of self-regulation.

“Much the same way that I’m not a fan of throwing away the laptop just to go back to a gigantic desktop.”

Johansson says people have been having existential questions about technology since the telephone first came about, and when his students ask him how to handle social media, he suggests they talk to their parents — about how it was in the good ol’ days before the smartphone.

So I did just that - and talked to my parents, Denise and Anthony Whyte.

Here’s some background: Mom’s had an iPhone for about a year, and she’s dabbled in some social media like Facebook and Instagram.

Dad? He’s always had a flip phone and he’s never opened any social media accounts. In fact, his number is our old landline.

This conversation began with criticism; both my mom and I (the ones with smartphones) have been feeling pretty negative about our reliance on them.

“Sometimes I do, sometimes I want to go back to a landline and it’s like okay, when I’m home there will be a message but when I’m out, then I’ll come home and check oh somebody’s looking for me. But if I’m out doing something, then I want to be doing just that at that moment, and experience it.”

The ideas of burden and control came up a lot during this conversation as well. The burden of having to share the details of your life, and whether you’re confident enough to share them in the first place.

“But there’s a certain amount of tenderness about that, of insignificant things that people are doing, so it’s not the worst thing in the world is what I’m saying.”

And I mean, that’s true too, right? Connectivity can feel like a burden, but it can also feel a lot like home, especially when you’re far away. My siblings, Bridget and Brian, and I have all moved around a lot since college, and most of our communication is based in group messages and sharing memes on Instagram.

“DAD: I mean I think it’s great that you guys interact with each other. And it makes me as a parent feel good about the fact that you’ve got connectivity to each other and you’re interested in each other’s lives.

MOM: Yea I do like when we can all have a group message, that’s nice, because it can be funny and everyone’s jumping in and Brian will jump in and I’m like “You’re alive!” Because he never jumps in on a conversation. So that’s fun, that is nice to have.”

I also talked to my friend Nate Smith to get his opinion. We’ve been friends for about a decade, and he’s never had a smartphone, which is a little harder to believe since were both in our late twenties.

“So I at first felt very like, I felt out of, I felt uncool. Out of the mainstream or whatever. But then more and more people started, on cue, to pull out their smart phones. So I would joke, I should have brought a book.”

He says this happens even in one on one situations, or at dinner. Nate’s deleted his social media accounts and says his decision to stay with the “dumb” phone is partly because of the cost and partly a conscious effort to disconnect.

But what about the way I think? I feel like sometimes I’m curating a post at an event while I’m still there. Kenya Malcolm is a clinical psychologist at University of Rochester Medical Center. We talked about when people use their phone to post photos of their meals on social media; a practice provokes strong feelings one way or another.

She said it’s not that different from how humans interact offline.

“You know if you’re at a restaurant and you walk past a group of people who are eating, you’re looking at their food. So it may feel weird, but we are a very socially connected species.”

So, will I go back to a so-called “dumb” phone? I’m still not sure. Do I want to lose the ability to get an Uber, message a group of friends at once, or use apps like the GPS? And have it all in my pocket? I don’t know, but $6 a month is pretty hard to turn down.