For those of us who have either personally experienced an airplane flight, or maybe seen a movie featuring the classic tarmac scene, the pilot’s pre-flight speech is familiar and often ignored. However, during a recent flight over winter break, I began to suspect that there may be, albeit a little trite, wisdom hidden between the lines of locating the nearest emergency exits and decoding the lit/unlit seatbelt sign.
“At this time, all passengers must turn off their portable electronic devices for takeoff. Signals emitted by electronics may interfere with the plane’s communication systems or navigation.”
As the stewards and stewardesses fasten their own seat belts and the celestial voice of the captain issues the power-off command, a frenzied symphony of typing, clicking and buzzing immediately ensues. As airline travelers, we are suddenly caught in a strange vortex of discomfort, of recognizing the scene and understanding our necessary role as responsible passengers, but feeling caught off guard at the unfamiliar feeling of a mind uninterrupted by personal technology.
Here we are, trapped in a seat-sized bubble of personal space, most of us with a book, all of us equipped with Sky Mags and Safety Brochures and, the lucky among us, the airline’s magazine with a crossword puzzle not yet done. There is a frantic glancing around, a sly peeking at the guy next to you, a nonchalant neck roll to check the woman behind, each of us hoping not to be the very last one using their laptop, not to be the holder of the technological hot potato when the flight attendants come around to request that laptops and cell phones be put away (no, not just on airplane mode, actually turned off).
It is fascinating to observe how few people think that a request to “all passengers” actually applies to them. When it comes to technology, so many of us—businessmen eking out just a couple more emails, teenagers pouting for just a few more Snapchats—suddenly become anarchists. The prevalence of this sense of hubris is particularly strange for business people: those whose days at the office are often spent following company rules and coloring within the lines of bureaucratic interests. These are the associates or partners who get their taxes done on time and have properly formatted email signatures. Yet, all of the sudden, in the LED-lit fortress of a commercial airplane, habits of public rule-following miraculously disappear.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to direct your attention to the television monitors. We will be showing our safety demonstration and would like the next few minutes of your complete attention.”
What if instead of viewing the time on the tarmac as the same quality as that of any other moment in any other place, we instead experienced it as a spontaneous throwback to a time before technology held us captive? What if, instead of stressing about the five hours of not being able to reply to the flood of emails in our inboxes, we reveled in the fact that “Sorry, I was on the airplane” is one of the last legitimate excuses for being truly unreachable?
Due to the rise of portable technology and the perpetually spreading capabilities of satellites and cell phone towers, the conventional idea of a vacation from work has slowly dissipated. Although an automatic response might claim that the respondent is “out of office” or “unavailable for a couple days,” it is reasonable to assume that unless they are trekking the Himalayas or photographing penguins, they are not literally unavailable and are likely sneaking furtive glances at the creeping number notification on their mailbox icon. Thus, the ability to take a vacation, to briefly ease our daily addiction to work and technology, is no longer guaranteed in the destination itself, but only in airplane, the purgatorial space between the home you are leaving and your intended final stop.
And yet, we ironically have come to take for granted the small chunk of time in which true relaxation can exist; we experience the airplane icon in the corner of an iPhone as an inconvenience of travel rather than the rare gift of being momentarily relieved of all external responsibility.
We have become so estranged from a time before laptops and iPads that we no longer know what to do without them. Sitting in the aisles, many appear antsy and distressed, aimlessly flipping through the safety brochure, silently pondering if maybe the seven dollars for on-board WiFi might actually be worth it. We have lost the ability to sit comfortably in silence and forfeited the will to engage in boredom. As products of a perpetually moving, constantly doing culture, we have come to resent the 15 to 40 minutes where the use of technology is not only frowned upon, but dangerous.
What was once a rare opportunity for calm and content has transformed into a dreaded event of anxiety and materialistic withdrawal. True, productivity plays an integral role in meaningful participation and successful careers. However, without an ability to relax and creatively entertain oneself, the merits of a strong work ethic can only take us so far.
Unless you’re on AirForce One and Putin just wont stop calling, it would be wise to listen to the pilot, power off your devices, and allow whatever baggage you have brought remain temporarily stowed in the overhead bins.
Solomon is a member of the Class of 2018.