Maybe, by the time you read this, my phone will still work – in its endearingly half-assed way. Maybe the matrix upgrade will be like Y2K and not happen at all. Remember waking up on January 1, 2000 and feeling sheepish on behalf of all the people who’d been stocking their basements with Spam?
But word has it that in January, older flip phones will be gradually phased out of the matrix. I have no idea how it all works up there in the clouds, but from what I gather, as Verizon replaces cell towers with new ones, the 43 million basic phones like mine – the third generation, essentially unconnected to the internet – will find reception spottier and spottier until, perhaps six months from now, we’ll be unable to field a call. It’s all in the name of the grand roll-out of the fifth generation. 5G will apparently be 25 times faster than the current state of the art and will “change everything,” a phrase I find ominous.
I stumbled upon this intel by accident, when I walked into a Verizon store hoping to switch over the works from my old phone, which had been going downhill since an unfortunate comingling with a water bottle at the bottom of my bag. It was hemorrhaging battery life and dropping calls, and the camera function was busted. In my hands was a box containing a brand new phone of a similar model, which by kismet a co-worker had dug up from her basement and given me that week.
“We don’t hook those up anymore,” said the sales guy, barely looking up from his own phone. “Even if I wanted to,” he said snidely, “it wouldn’t let me.” What he could do was sell me a $130 honker that he claimed was the last flip phone in the store, with buttons so big you could dial with a knuckle. It was the next generation up from my phone, but it certainly didn’t look like a step forward.
I felt myself metamorphosing into that woman, the one who asks for the manager in an icy voice. This was how Verizon was breaking up with me, after 20 years together? With an eye roll and two taps of his phone, the sales guy summoned his manager, “even though he’s just gonna tell you the same thing.”
The manager’s voice came over the phone speaker and, loudly and patiently as if I were his great-grandmother, explained to me how things stood. If he were to try to hook up my phone, the system would give him a red exclamation point. Ah, the red exclamation point! Say no more.
I walked out of the store pissed, but not exactly surprised. Those of us still using these relics have been getting painted into a corner for years. I can’t order an Uber or use Venmo to pay friends my portion of a restaurant tab. And guess what? It turns out that pulling out your checkbook and making a joke about a carrier pigeon is not that cool. I can’t access my ultimate Frisbee team’s workouts or log my reps, or check into a flight without breaking stride at the airport – back when people did such things of course.
But the biggest loss came years ago, when my college friends traded email for WhatsApp to chat, and I think play Scrabble? Just like that, the running dialog of the last decade – inane inside jokes and news of pregnancies, miscarriages, job promotions, a parent’s death – went silent, cutting off the blood flow to those formative friendships, the best of my life.
Did I mention that my phone translates all emojis into squares? I imagine good things – hearts, flames, fists – in those boxes, but for an English major, I can’t deny it’s a bummer to flip open my phone to read box-box-box-box-box.
But a funny thing has happened. As my phone has gotten more and more outdated, people have stopped snorting when I pull it out. Eyebrows lift, heads turn to take in this novelty. What was creaky and prehistoric a decade ago has evolved into something of a badge of honor: Becca with the flip phone.
At this point, I can count on one hand the fellow flip phone holdouts I know: a teacher-and-professor couple, a farmer, a woodworking teacher, husband Joe. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that each of them seems to have been sprinkled with an extra bit of fairy dust.
We’re an endangered species, to state the obvious. Whether it’s this January or two years from now, the time is approaching when flip phones will be phased out completely. When that day comes, we’re going to have to decide whether to upgrade or, what, go back to landlines? That would be interesting, navigating this winter without a mobile phone. Forget nostalgic infrastructure like payphones and cabs, during pandemic times you can’t even ask a passerby to borrow her phone in an emergency.
Why fight it? Why not just upgrade already? I won’t pretend I’m not tempted. What a mind-blowingly powerful tool you all carry around in your pocket. But I’m sticking with thanks but no thanks. I’ll hang onto my trusty old phone (which is working much better, thank you, since desperation motivated me to try changing the battery), and keep my fingers crossed that January comes and goes like Y2K.
Meanwhile, I’ll be standing here on the margins of the matrix, a conscientious objector to the techno-industrial complex, waving my freak flag to the rallying cry of box-box-box-box-box.