Leaving the phone behind: Intentional disconnect and the appropriation of "flight mode"

Sebastian Greger

“Leave your phone behind”, a recent writing by a NYC startup CEO on LinkedIn gained quite a bit of traffic and comments when Rafat Ali suggested to create short periods of disconnection from the omnipresent network and its distracting forces.

Both in the article and the 100+ comments by the readers, there is a sense that even the most connected individuals (as one would think of a tech startup manager, for example) tend to develop strategies to disconnect temporarily.

Following the wide spread of mobile phones and - in the case of smartphones - the growing share of daily tasks transferred into the always-on handheld devices, it is interesting to read about people who deliberately create themselves temporal or spatial freedom from dependence on the always-around electronic companion.

With motives varying widely from productivity gain to personal freedom, the most popular strategies mentioned are to

  • cut off (by leaving the phone behind or turning it off completely),
  • disconnect (e.g. turning the phone offline using flight mode), or
  • filter (for instance using settings to allow only certain callers, like family, to get through while redirecting or muting all other incoming connections),
  • but also to use self-discipline (just disregarding the device, with no technical measures).

From a design perspective, it is particularly interesting how often the discussion participants mention the “flight mode” of mobile phones. Initially designed to allow the continued use of the devices’ offline features in environments where radio transmitters are not allowed (like aircraft, hospitals or otherwise sensitive environments), users have assigned it a new role as a mode that allows to intentionally disconnect from the communication features of the device while keeping access to its other roles as a watch replacement, calendar, notebook or camera.

The so called “flight mode” is being used as a convenient form of using the offline features of a mobile phone while disconnecting from the online network.

Regardless of whether a mobile phone owner turns off the device or ignores it, such forms of “leaving the phone behind” are all instances where a user is at the same time either a temporary or partial non-user. And indeed, commenters on the LinkedIn article hint that such non-use leads to experiences indicating the unexpectedness of their behaviour: discomfort with not reaching an offline partner, anger of others who could not reach them, the need to “train” communication partners to accept offline phases etc.