Airplane Mode

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Richard Swerdlow (Richard Swerdlow)

When a routine flight goes down, so to speak, Richard Swerdlow has to unplug and launch his God-given browser.

It was only a short flight to LA, but just after take-off, when the captain came on the intercom to announce there was a problem with the plane, it didn't sound good: "Ladies and gentlemen, our onboard wi-fi system has gone down, so we won't have wi-fi available on this flight."

From the shrieks and groans filling the cabin, you'd think he'd announced the plane was going down, not the wi-fi. People stared in disbelief at now useless tablets, laptops, and phones, freaked at the prospect of one entire hour without movies, cat videos, shopping, or social media.

"And I can't even tweet about this," muttered the lady next to me. But since she couldn't tweet, and I couldn't email, we had a friendly real-time conversation. And, looking around the cabin, I noticed, with no wi-fi connection, how many passengers had removed their earbuds and cheerfully connected with seatmates. A happy background buzz of laughter and chit-chat slowly replaced the initial groans.

With no laptop to occupy me, I flipped through the in-flight magazine, and gazed out the window at fluffy clouds, letting my thoughts drift randomly, finding - to my surprise - how many constructive ideas popped into my head without the internet clogging my brain.


A study found that the average American checks a phone 80 times a day, and spends about 25 hours per week on the internet. We have become so addicted to constant digital distraction that the prospect of an hour without it is enough to send a planeload of passengers from airplane mode into panic mode.

All of us have read advice from experts about the mental health benefits of "unplugging" - but my enforced in-flight digital detox made me realize how relaxing and even productive it is to occasionally power down the screen and be present, launching that natural browser called your mind.

Yes, you've heard this all before. But in this new year, it's worth hearing again. In 2019, try putting down your phone once in a while and connecting to reality. You may discover you like life in the actual, not virtual, world.

With a Perspective, I'm Richard Swerdlow.

Richard Swerdlow teaches in the San Francisco Unified School District.