Reactivating My Pink, Diamond-Encrusted Baby Phat
Flip Phone: Thoughts On Nostalgia & Technology
I have a creepy weakness for forgotten early 2000s nostalgia including, well—mostly—clunky, unreasonable-looking electronics. My mouth waters when I randomly find old desktop computers and/or TVs discarded on the street as garbage. Sidekicks, flip-phones, CD players, keyboards, all these things make me tingle. As a media ecologist, I’m convinced there’s no better way to navigate/better understand the human’s relationship and biases towards technology than studying and admiring the wondrous physicality of hardware.
Millennials, I think, have underestimated, and undermined not just the massive quantity of hardware we’ve gone through in what felt like a blip of adolescence—but we’ve also forgotten how much they provided deeper textures of meaning and awareness to our lives while growing up. I’ve often said we’ll eventually tire of having all our desired activities (like listening to music or taking pictures) be available through one device: the iPhone, and will begin to appreciate the magic of separating these experiences with varying gizmos and gadgets like we used to. I predict the mobile-computer-we-use-for-everything-but-calling-people, or as you like to call it—the “phone”—is going to drive us so insane, we’ll eventually seek alternative devices that don’t make us feel like such desperate, addicted losers.
You have to admit, listening to music when it wasn’t directly conjoined to all the toxic wormholes of the internet offered a different kind of listening experience than it does today. Not being able to see how your photos looked before you took them offered a different kind of freedom to how and what you shot. Now—I’m very careful about making value judgments about these things. If you pay attention, I seldom ever use the word “better” to describe these more analog periods of our childhood. People assume I think they were better because people themselves think they were better. That’s on you.
I firmly believe all technology, both the new and the old, come with pros and cons. I don’t really worry myself about what is “better” overall, but more about what is better for the moment. And more importantly, if it’s adding value to my life or if it’s taking it away. An obviously important consideration—but between the culture’s blind technophilia, along with the speed of irrelevant content we’re expected to sift through in a day, flies over our heads like Jay-Z’s verse in Renegade.
Texting, as a mode of serious dialogue, for example, has become one of the most harmful, inefficient ways of communication and it’s destroying all of our relationships. You’d think we’d notice and do something about it, but not only are we continuing to rely on it to construct relationships, most would be offended if you chose not to. [Insert played-out think before you call meme here.] Can’t this call be a text? you ask. Why, yes. Just like a song can be printed on a music sheet. But isn’t anyone wondering what we lose when we dispose of the sound?
So I decided I’d have to put a stop to the madness going into the new year. Me and a best friend were gasping during a not so unusual scene. We were in her kitchen, debating about if and how she should use stuff like exclamation points, a heart emoji or send a double text to the guy she was dating. If we should wait ten minutes to respond, twelve? Fifteen? I say “we” because it doesn’t seem to matter which of us is actually sending the text. We’re usually both just as emotionally invested in the execution of these blue bubbles no matter which one of us it is. And I know harping on details as little as these seems silly and immature but if you were born between the years of 85 and 95 you know how much these things make a difference.
I’ve learned when it comes to texting, just like in-person, the words make up just a tiny fraction of what is actually being said. And instead of getting a gallery of appropriate stimuli like body language or eye-contact to make a judgement call, all you have is those three little dots bumbling in suspense as your hand is clenched to the back of the screen. I don’t think many millennials realize it, but most of us are not just using words to “send a message”. We’re also using the distances of time between the texts. We’re using subtle things like case-sensitivity and of course, emojis. But if you’re waiting three hours to text them back as punishment and they’re waiting three hours to text back because they were at work, what universal unit of measurement do those three hours really mean?
The way I see it, there’s a new language forming as a consequence of the combination of texting and social media. I’m calling it iPhonese, and the alphabet for it is made up in more than just letters. It’s also made up of “he watched my story but didn’t reply” and “she ignored my call but she just posted a new photo”. If you’re a millennial, you know these gestures are definitely ways of saying things, even if we don’t necessarily mean to. And so the question becomes: How the fuck do you communicate in a world that’s connected to the internet all day? How do we really know what each of us is saying when an “lol” sent at 9:15pm to him means something completely different than “lol” sent at 9:15pm to you?
iPhonese is still in its early stages, scattered in dialects the same way there were dozens of Italian dialects across the Roman Empire before distinguishing one universal Italian. Before that, there really was no way of communicating to the Italians on the other side of town other than overlapping the parts both parties seemed to understand and pray you’d somehow get through to each other. The same way shooting a red heart into a text thread can appear either aggressively romantic or friendly and innocent depending on your dialect. She sent you a red heart? What does that mean? Who knows what it means! It’s so subjective and dependent on the context of a million other things, like if it was in DM, how quickly it was sent or what was being discussed before it. It can mean anything! And congratulations, as a millennial in 2018— it’s your job to figure it out.
This is stupid. In my opinion yo, this shit is stupid. So I started to ask myself how I can eliminate so much of the drama that comes with iPhonese and found optimism at the thought of the clunky yet graceful design of a flip-phone. Just the idea of slapping it shut to end a conversation was enough to make my heart thump. Something was so refreshing about the idea of a tiny, pixelated screen. And the thought of pressing one button repeatedly just to write one letter seemed so much more—I know this is going to come out weird but—humane. Yes. That’s right. I thought. Texting was made for telling people when you were downstairs or to say “luv u”. They were difficult to type because of the shitty buttoned keyboards you had to use to write them and they were also charged by the send. Both factors that completely dictated how and what we used it for. It wasn’t invented to say anything serious. But today, the ease one can type and send has tricked us into thinking it is the mode most appropriate for the majority of our conversations. It seems so much more low maintenance than an email or god forbid, a phone call. But look at us a decade in. Is it really?
I mean how different would my life be if I only allowed a small number of people to text me? How different would dating be if our conversations had actual beginnings and ends, graced with the preciousness of our vocal chords and unique enunciations? It just seems so much more damn civilized. So much more emotionally economical and healthy for my millennial heart, plus come on—how awesome would it feel to be the one girl at the party who whips out a flip-phone in your face?
The decision was made. “Flip-Phone All 2019” was the fake hashtag I was verbally campaigning to my friends. They’d tell me about their texting drama and I’d wait for nothing to repeat my new tagline as a way to remind them there’s options to this bullshit. Right? I decided the slogan itself wouldn’t be enough. I had to actually do it. How much could it be? I asked myself. It’s not like I’d be getting rid of my iPhone. I’d just have a special line, for my special people, to have special conversations. I just wanted a phone to be separate from my computer the same way I’d want to buy a separate camera. Just to give the experience a little more justice you know? Just to give it enough room to be the best it can be.
And so because— I’m Alex Wolf, I can’t just walk into a mysterious SIM card store and ask for just any flip-phone. Oh no. This flip-phone had to make a statement. I had to make sure it was ridiculous, unreasonable, absurd. And that’s when I found her.
A bubblegum pink, diamond-encrusted Baby Phat flip-phone, originally retailed in the darling and under-appreciated year of 2004. The same year Ashlee Simpson got caught lip-syncing on SNL. This phone was my dreams incarnated. A nostalgic piece of hardware dipped in early 2000s urban fashion aesthetic. Nothing could stop me. The seller listed it at a price I was sure I could negotiate down and I could just taste how close I was to this delicate and vintage mode of conversation.
Now, I consider myself to be a materially modest person. I let myself buy one Louis Vuitton bag in my early twenties and quickly realized external things can’t really do shit for you—expect attract a bunch of shallow losers. But I have to tell you, I was so emotionally charged about receiving this physical item I felt like I would be jinxing it if I mentioned it before it arrived. My excitement indicated this phone already meant more to me than ten Louis Vuitton purses combined. It meant something bigger, deeper. It represented a beacon of dialogic hope for my culture. It was like finding a gentle pulse reveal itself in a baby bird you thought was dead.
In the Uber on the way from the post office, I shrieked in the back seat when I finally opened the package and got to stroke it’s smooth metal finish. It was even prettier in real life than in the pictures. I mouthed a silent “fuck” as I lifted the pink and silver antenna out of the socket. I put it to my ear and felt the pink tassel land on the outside of my hand. This was it. I had died and went to hardware heaven.
“Importza Sim” is all it read. It wouldn’t allow me to see anything else. Good thing we were on the way to the SIM card store now. I figured any hole in the wall could do. In fact, I figured the more shady the spot, the better this whole experience would serve my climactic, rumbling emotions. I pictured myself walking in and them shutting down the shop for a few minutes to huddle over the phone with me. Letting its diamonds glisten at us as we stared at it in awe. Talking about how “they don’t make stuff like this anymore”.
It was five minutes in when the fat guy leaning on the counter said “That thing is never going to work.” He might as well have insulted my mother. I had asked the skinny guy working there a few minutes earlier, with a crack in my voice if I could please buy a SIM card. “What kind of SIM card you want?” he said. I got giddy at the anatomy of the question. I hadn’t thought about SIM cards since life was, easier. I didn’t know the differences between them but I was thrilled to hear him explain. He was kind and accommodating. Apparently they were all really cheap and unlimited. Times have changed. “I’ll just take the basic one.” I said as I carefully wrestled the shiny, pink masterpiece out from my bag and on to the table. I felt like a hood nigga with a rolex.
“That thing is never going to work.” It was the big guy on the side of me again. I wanted to tell him to mind his fucking business. He didn’t know how seamlessly I needed this experience to play out. He didn’t know my heart was bigger than usual at the moment and in no condition to be tampered. I ignored him and felt a rush of adrenaline charge up my veins from opening the phone and seeing it’s mechanical insides for the first time. “You’re wasting your time!” he laughed. “That thing’s never going to work.” He repeated the words with no mercy. I had to stop for a moment. I could tell the skinny guy who was working for him was trying to level out the energy. “It’s not going to work?” he asked the boss. “No— I’ve been selling these phones for seventeen years! Those phones don’t work anymore! They got rid of the carrier. You’re wasting your time.” He laughed. “Where you’d buy that phone? I hope you didn’t spend a lot on it.” Another chuckle.
Bitch mode activated. “It doesn’t matter where I got it. If I want to buy a SIM card, I can buy a SIM card!” I said trying to watch my temper. “I can at least test it.” I told him. “It’s not going to work! I keep trying to tell you!” He giggled right into my moment. “Nobody asked you!” I said “Just because you can’t figure it out, doesn’t mean it can’t work!” The phone started to boot up and captured my line of attention again. The words “Where You At?!” appeared over the screen. I tried to hone my focus on this moment. I could feel the beginning of my nostaligi-asm coming. Even the pace in which the screens loaded calmed me down. I was back. For a moment, I was back.
The wallpaper appeared and I was now in the phone. I thought I could wait until I got home but my thumbs forced themselves directly to the ringtones, the wallpapers, and the games. Each click felt like a dip deeper into an ease I didn’t think I’d never feel again. The top corner did say “No Service” but at least I could play inside the phone now.
“Yeah, I’ll take this SIM card.” I told the skinny guy. “It didn’t work— huh?” said the asshole determined to steal my joy. “No. I’m just going to have to take it to another place because it’s obvious you don’t know what you’re doing here.” He was right, but I still needed him to feel stupid. The skinny guy pointed his finger to the wall. “You can try one of these phones.” he said nicely. I looked up and saw boxes with sleek, black, grandma phones on the front. $39.99 it read.
I had to go. These people have obviously missed the point. Even after years of being “in technology” I still get wounded, am unprepared, when I realize how tiny of a population of people in this field actually give a shit about it. I paid him twenty bucks and walked the rest of the way home. Then, I couldn’t believe myself as I was doing it, but before I walked in the door, I looked down at the phone and told it I believed in it.
After a bit of research I realized what the cunt-bag at the SIM card store was talking about. Apparently, all major carriers switched from 3G services to 4G in 2010, which made any 3G or below SIM cards (and phones) incompatible with the new frequency the country was now using to communicate. Symbolic. One of my favorite intellectuals Neil Postman, often spoke about how one of the ways we justify the “advancement” of technology no matter what it is, is through this idea that it always gives us “more options”, but how this ultimately ends up being an illusion.
He referenced a story of him going to a car dealership to buy a new Honda in the 90s and how each vehicle had automatic windows. He asked the salesman what the purpose of the automatic windows was? What problem do they solve? The salesman said he never thought about that but perhaps, it was to solve the motion of using your arm to lever the window down. Postman mentioned that this has never been a problem for him. Couldn’t he purchase a car without this automatic feature? The salesman told him that was the only way the cars were being designed from here on out, so he had no choice.
Just like I had no choice. I mean I know I had the choice to buy the another less fancy phone but what I really mean is that this experience painfully illuminated once more that when we decide to “improve” on a technology in this culture, we usually don’t design them to be reverse compatible or even “reverse-considered”. Our approach, our philosophy, is that if it decreases even a centimeter of effort (like the automatic windows) then it must be better. That the old way should be immediately discarded, forgotten about, outdated. That we should build things in a way that, should we ever feel the need to look back one day they’d be, like that fat guy said “a waste of time”.
But what about people who don’t mind using a little elbow grease to get some fresh air? What about the people who want to put in a some extra effort in things like windows or conversations, because they understand it yields a different kind of result? Since when did we decide the merit behind a technology should depend on how quickly it can be outdated? Wouldn’t it make more sense to design technology to both weather and compliment the patterns of humanity in any decade? Any century? Shouldn’t they be built in consideration of the shared characteristics that make human life slightly more enjoyable no matter the year? Like bowls? Plumbing? Light Bulbs? Pens?
The Baby Phat phone is now framed in my living room. She is just the start of my personal collection of rare and meaningfully designed hardware. After I realized how much trouble I’d have to go through to get it work, I decided it was too beautiful of a piece to use just for wear and tear anyway. It wasn’t until I was staring at it face to face the next day that it sunk in. Even though it didn’t look like it (or feel like it) this is a fifteen-year-old piece of technology! The paint is beautiful, but it does look like with too much touching it might chip off bit by bit. It doesn’t even have a camera, another signal for how deceptively old it is. And today, it gets to live in 2018 in an entirely different way than it did in 2004. Not just as a flashy phone for prima donnas who like tight jeans, but as an artifact--to be admired, appreciated and most importantly to serve as a reminder. A token to ask ourselves when it comes to making new things: what really matters?