I’m on an airplane to San Francisco as I write this, we are somewhere over southern Nevada. but I will post it when I land. I wait, despite the fact that everyone on this flight was given a trial voucher for an in-air wifi service that is partnering with the airline I am flying on. I took the card I was given, and listened to the instructions on how to activate service: it requires creating an account, signing up for the monthly service, though it was ambiguous whether you had to input a credit card. The salesman walked around to everyone in the waiting area and asked them if they had a “wireless enabled device” with them, and then offered them a card with a code on it. He was typical gregarious on-foot salesman, who approached people fiddling with their iPhones and asked them if they had a wireless device, and followed that with “oh, well, yes, you do have one!” as if he discovered that in the process of talking to them, and not specifically targeted them because they so obviously were twiddling with their iPhones.
It was a special introductory offer. Normally it is $12.95 per flight, and I assume there is a monthly price as well for the permanently plane bound business travelers, and once they have your information, how hard is it to cancel or get out of the system. The salesman’s aggressiveness couched in friendliness had all the markings of classic corporate addiction creation. It was not unlike the real drug dealer, for whom the first hit is always on the house. It is a standard business strategy, but it doesn’t make it any less repulsive. Just remember AOL. Ever try to use their introductory offer, and then cancel after that free month, or maybe even a few more months; they practically would not let you. And then they call you and call you to get you to resume service
I knew almost immediately that I wouldn’t use the service; i felt like the corporate dealer was trying to make a user out of me, plus excessive registration processes repulse me, and even my junk email account is beginning to get overloaded. Also it was a 9AM flight, and I had only slept 5 hours. So I slept the first four hours, and woke up surrounded by people doing the same meaningless things that the internet is so useful for. I am pinned in by a guy in a speedy round of iPhone IM’ing that seems to never stop (his active arm needs room and he keeps elbowing me in the side), a guy who is playing WoW, and exhibiting all the signs of that form of addiction (though doesn’t he know that 5 hours is not long enough for a meaningful quest!), and a guy who is intently looking at something, though I can’t tell what.
I’m not about to argue that there is something sacred about plane travel, or that it is peaceful in any way, but it was one of the places where we were temporarily removed from the constant daily bombardment of information. If only for two or five or twelve hours, we did not see any advertisements, did not have to respond to urgent emails in our inbox, could not waste our time IM’ing or obsessively browsing eBay. This border has progressively deteriorated, most notably with the introduction of personal TV screens on the back of each seat, which allow a flight of people to all watch their choice of hundreds of stations. In my experience only two thirds of these screens actually turn off, the others you dim down to a lower setting but they will not turn off completely.
There is a new bus service out of New York that has Wifi on all their busses. I like their busses not primarily for the wifi, but because the entire experience is an attempt to upgrade the bus riding experience. They are direct busses to Boston, Philadelphia, etc, with new clean seats, and the entire bus doesn’t smell like urine, and/or McDonalds. I have used the WiFi on those busses, but I like the power jack for every seat as much as the wifi.
But there is something different about the experience of flying pre-wifi and the experience of riding a bus pre-wifi. The airplane was always a place of continuous white noise from the ventilation, the hushed conversations, and the hum of the engines. It was almost like being crammed into a tiny seat at a library with a really really loud air conditioning system. Buses were more like being at a really loud restaurant full of people whose conversations you didn’t want to overhear; people talking way too loudly into their cell phones, having arguments with the person they were sitting with, or listening to music too loud so the sound escapes their cheap earbuds and leaks into the rest of the space. While the introduction of wifi has taken away one space that was free of perma-communication, it has actually tamed the far more obnoxious perma-communication on the bus.
Cell phones ringing on subway trains have to be the strangest rupture created by the growing reach of wireless networks. There are certain subway stations in New York that are close enough to the ground that they get reception. It changes from provider to provider, but I have had my phone ring, or seen other peoples phones ring in a number of stations. The ones that are most prevalent are Atlantic Pacific and Nevins Street on the 2/3 line, and Bleecker on the 6 line. There are others, but these are the ones that have stuck in my memory. The 2/3 platform at Atlantic Pacific has such good reception that I often will call my parents on the west coast from the platform as a way to pass the time waiting for late night transfers.
This all sounds benign, and mildly beneficial, but the rupture comes when the train is moving. When you pull into Atlantic Pacific, the door open and close, and right as the train starts moving someone’s phone rings. Loudly. They are startled themselves, and scramble to find it. At best they can open the phone and bark out a quick “I’m on the train! Going to lose reception. Call you back” as the train returns to the tunnel and the line goes dead.
A similar situation happens on the B/Q lines when they cross the Manhattan bridge. There is the surprise call phenomenon, but there is also this mass rush to check voicemail, or txt msgs. And on the evening commute home a very large percentage of the riders all pop open their phones and call their spouses, partners, children to let them know “I’m on the bridge, i’ll be home in…” whatever time corresponds to how many stops they have left.
My understanding is that the reason you are not allowed to talk on your cell phone during an airplane flight has nothing to do with safety and pilot/ground communications. My understanding is that you are either way too high to get a signal, so it is pointless, or when you are close enough to get a signal, during takeoff and landing, the plane is moving so fast that you are moving from cell tower to cell tower so quickly that it overloads the system. Your phone is asking the next tower to make a connection before it has even heard back from the last tower that it is closing that connection. Your phone does this regardless of whether you are actively talking. You can never maintain a connection long enough to actually have a conversation, and take this pattern and multiply it by a plane full of cellphones and multiply that by the constant flow of planes taking off and landing, and you get the makings of an unintentional Denial Of Service attack.
Add into this mix the TV/advertisement screens inside and outside the NYC cabs, the LED screens on subway stations, the LED billboards that have to increase driver crash rates, the cell phones and texting that do increase driver crash rates, in-dash automobile pseudo-computers, and the list goes on.
We are flying over Lake Tahoe, and will start the landing process soon, so I will have to turn off my computer. My stomach is grumbling despite the fact that I made my lunch for the flight, now that they no longer serve even pretzels without a price. Flying has never been a true pleasure. My high school physics teacher repeatedly bemoaned the rise of the casual flyer who did not get dressed up for the event. But even in the era that people got dressed up for the special occasion, it wasn’t because flying was peaceful, or fun. It was just one of the last spaces that was outside of the communication network.