Can you live without a smartphone? This flip phone fan has done it for 13 years and will teach you how

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Michael Valeri texts a friend — using T9 — on his flip phone. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

When I first sat down with Michael Valeri, a Seattle data analyst who has been using a flip phone for the past 13 years, I asked if I could see his phone. He had to get up and leave the room to retrieve it because he left it in his coat pocket.

And with that, Valeri instantly illustrated why he’s different than the rest of us in tech-addicted 2019, who are never more than arm’s length from the smartphones we all carry.

But Valeri, 28, isn’t looking down at us (as we’re looking down at our phones) from any soapbox. And he’s not pulling off some sort of hipster, contrarian lifestyle devoid of pocket-sized tech because he thinks it looks especially ironic this month.

With his AT&T Cingular Flip 2 in hand, Valeri genuinely believes he’s living a better life for himself, and he’s interested in teaching people how they can do it, too. And the distinction is important — he doesn’t want to tell people why they should give up their iPhones, but rather how to survive if they do. Valeri will lead a free, 2-hour class at General Assembly on Jan. 30 called “Swipeless in Seattle: How to Live Without a Smartphone.” The Evergrey first interviewed him earlier this week.

It might be tempting to dwell on what Valeri is missing by not carrying a smartphone, but the bigger story might be what the rest of us are missing by being glued to ours.

“For me, this feels like the best way I can live my life,” Valeri said, admitting that he’s easily distracted and that it takes effort to focus on tasks at hand. “This is the best way I can live my life. And I really stress I, because this model might not work for everybody, but with my personality type and who I am, this is the best model for the way that I can live my life. And there might be other people out there who it could work very well with, too.”

Valeri didn’t use Uber or Lyft to get to the GeekWire offices. He didn’t unlock a LimeBike with his phone. He hopped on his own electric bike and rode without any navigation apps — he simply scrawled our address on a scrap of paper. He likens his lifestyle and life without modern phone conveniences to playing a game, and he enjoys the challenges and surprises that come with that game — getting lost, interacting with people in person, looking up at the world instead of down.

Michael Valeri with the $69 flip phone he uses to “stay connected.” (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Valeri is not on social media — with the exception of a LinkedIn account — so he’s not constantly monitoring  Facebook or Instagram. He’s not obsessed with mobile photography like the rest of us and the music he listens to is all stored on a tiny MP3 player he also carries around. He relies on WiFi and his data-free plan costs him $25 per month. His phone cost $69 and he uses T9 to fire off a text to a friend.

“The only time I’ll feel disconnected, I’m maybe in a bar or some kind of communal gathering spot, just seeing folks looking at devices,” Valeri said. “I often imagine a time 20, 30 years ago where people’s heads would be up and observant of people around them and the opportunity to connect with people.”

Most young people might shudder if they get a notification that their parents are on Facebook. Valeri’s parents, who are in Oklahoma, are annoyed that their son refuses to share daily details of his life.

“My folks, my mom in particular, do not like the fact that I’m not on Facebook,” he said. “She’s like, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing. I don’t know anything about you. I don’t know what you’re up to. I don’t know who you’re hanging out with.’”

Valeri, who moved to Seattle in 2008 to major in accounting at the University of Washington, is hanging out with people who all have smartphones. And they laugh at his choice. They’ll say, “Use Michael’s phone!” when someone is ready to take a picture. On group texts he can’t tell who is messaging and he falls off threads. His phone can’t read emojis.

He figures if information is important enough or worth knowing, it will filter down to him. He’s missed wedding and baby news that others learn about in online social feeds.

“I’m sure I’ve missed out on tons of memes and … controversies,” he said laughing. “Everything’s a controversy today!”

Michael Valeri’s MP3 player stores music he was listening to back in college. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Valeri, who is now a senior analytics consultant with Avenue In Consulting, did have a smartphone briefly, three years ago, when he was working for Expedia and he was given one. He lasted three months before giving it back. When he was in college he just preferred to lock himself in the library to avoid distraction. And today he has sort of locked himself into a flip phone world to avoid the distraction of more advanced technology.

I asked Valeri what he thinks when he’s out with someone and they pull out their phone and start scrolling or tapping out a text in he middle of a conversation.

“I would have nothing bad to say about them because I know that is the day and age we live in,” he said. “I would still love them.”

And what does he think of the guy who walks into the coffee shop and has already paid for his drink with a smartphone app?

“You can do that?”

Michael Valeri often scribbles addresses and directions on a piece of paper before leaving for an appointment. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

In the class he’ll be teaching at General Assembly, Valeri will highlight his experiences and advice for dealing with four main facets of flip phone life: transportation, navigation, communication and entertainment.

Navigation is by far the leading answer when he asks friends what one thing they could not live without on their smartphones. They can’t imagine not having GPS or maps to get anywhere, especially in a new city.

“I went to Korea without a smartphone and I got lost constantly and I had a little [paper] map and I would try to talk to people and they’d point and I just thought it was fun,” he said. “I knew nothing horrible was going to happen. You might get lost and you know, that’s OK. It’s OK to be wrong.”

He hopes people who take his class simply learn that it is truly possible to disconnect from technology the way he has. Life will go on, and maybe even be more rewarding in some ways.

“You won’t die. I’m here. I’m not dead,” he said.

“Swipeless in Seattle” will take place Jan. 30 from 6-8 p.m. at General Assembly, 1218 Third Ave., in Seattle. Tickets are free. 

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