Editor’s Note (26 December 2016): Through the end of the year, BBC Capital is bringing back some of your favourite stories from 2016.
On the subway, commuting into the heart of New York City, Danny Groner stands out. He is one of the only people in the carriage not staring at a small screen.
He’s proud to not be one of the more than two-thirds of Americans who own a smartphone.
(Credit: Getty Images)
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Like billionaire business leaders Warren Buffett and Blackstone private equity’s Stephen Schwartzman, Groner's only mobile connection with the world is an old-school flip-phone used just for calls and SMS (text messages).
But he’s not an old fogey. At 32, Groner is at the heart of the smartphone target audience. He’s young, and he’s a manager at the $1.2 billion-listed stock photo agency Shutterstock, one of Silicon Alley’s big success stories. His office is in the company’s swanky headquarters, occupying two floors of the Empire State Building. It’s a start-up vision complete with swings, games rooms and a yoga studio.
Surrounded by technology, Groner makes it crystal clear why he benefits from being a smartphone refusenik.
Actress Scarlett Johansson. (Credit: Getty Images)
“I worry about burning out,” he said. “I spend 13, 14 hours a day in front of a screen, that’s enough. It doesn’t need to be 17 hours.”
Despite his enthusiasm for retro devices, he admits we can’t all ditch our smartphones: “If everybody was like me, no work would get done,” he said, even though Groner thinks his smartphone avoidance makes him a better worker.
The rise of the flip-phone is a reaction to feeling… subservient to your smartphone.
When those studies were extended to include workers across a broader spectrum of occupations, and included a look at the effect of TV and laptop use the results were confirmed. “Out of all those devices, smartphones were associated with the most powerful effects,” they reported.
Harvard University psychology lecturer Dr Holly Parker believes that flip-phone use could help people to define the line between work and home.
“People don't have to force themselves into the false choice of, I can never look at work outside home versus I have to do it all the time,” she said, suggesting that companies benefit from improved productivity if they allow employees to cultivate the space to recover from work.
Watch the video above for eight reasons why a flip-phone is better than a smartphone.
Addiction to old-school
“The rise of the flip-phone is a reaction to feeling as if one is subservient to your smartphone. Adopting a flip-phone is a bold and luxurious statement to proclaim that you have control,” said lawyer and “tech ethicist” David Ryan Polgar. But, he thinks there are better ways to show that you’ve mastered control over invasive technology. Just don’t keep your smartphone around all the time.
Someone consciously choosing to not have their smartphone is projecting power and freedom.
“Both a tech-savvy person using a flip-phone and someone consciously choosing to not have their smartphone is projecting power and freedom,” he said. “That is the status symbol.”
Of course, that sort of discipline is easy to aspire to and quite hard to achieve for many.
Some even think it may be necessary to change laws to make people comfortable switching off their smartphones. France is the first country to consider enshrining the “right to disconnect” in legislation.
Singer Rihanna still carries a flip-phone. (Credit: Alamy)
This initiative comes not from trade unions, but from Bruno Mettling, deputy director of the French multinational telecommunications company Orange, who last September submitted a report on digital work to France’s Minister of Labour. Afterwards, in a radio interview with Europe 1, he said that although there was no legal obligation for an employee to stay connected, this doesn't recognise the reality of relationships with managers.
Even with the protection of the law, however, it may be almost impossible for most of us to resist the lure of the screen to make one last check of email and messages before trying to get to sleep.
People tell me I could just leave it in my pocket and not turn it on. But I don’t trust myself.
That’s what led Ellyn Shook, chief human resources officer for global consulting firm Accenture, to go low-tech. After failing in her attempt to ban her iPhone from her bedside table, early last summer she bought a flip-phone. It wasn’t to be a permanent replacement for her smartphone, but a substitute to be switched on when she needed to be switched off from work.
It worked. As a result of her step back in time to use old technology she was able to spend whole days on the beach at the weekend without checking her phone, she said.
As for Groner, he said he won’t upgrade to a smartphone. “People tell me I could just leave it in my pocket and not turn it on. But I don’t trust myself,” he said. “If it was available I’d end up just as addicted as they are.”