As you might be aware, the cause of human freedom took a giant stride forward at the weekend: the US federal aviation administration (FAA), it emerged, seems all but certain to relax its restrictions against the use of portable electronics on planes during takeoff and landing.
The ban on e-readers, iPads, smartphones in ‘airplane’ mode, and so on, always been hard to defend. Even the FAA can’t decide if the rationale is that they interfere with flight equipment (they don’t); that they might fly through the plane and hurt people (they might, but then why aren’t big hardback books also banned?); or that cabin crew might need passengers’ attention in case of emergency. (A reasonable justification for banning headphones, perhaps, but is a Kindle more distracting than a physical book?)
Perhaps the most telling detail is this: the FAA’s expert advisors appear to have recommended the policy change partly because so many passengers flout the rules anyway. When an aviation safety rule can be voted down by people disobeying it, it’s reasonable to conclude that it was never a matter of life and death to begin with.
Still – and I speak as a gadget addict myself here, not a Luddite or a Zen monk – I’ve always been taken aback by the sheer rage that the ban seems to provoke. In recent commentary about it, you’ll find it called “completely infuriating” and “draconian”, “the dumbest rule ever”, “stupid” and “bullshit”. Meanwhile, at the New York Times, where such language is frowned on, the tech journalist Nick Bilton has been waging an impassioned if more politely worded campaign against the ban for years, almost as if it were one of the major human rights abuses of our era.
Last year, Gizmodo even published this detailed guide to getting around the ban; apparently, the trick is to wear a hoodie and carry two pairs of headphones – one as a decoy to display unused on your lap – while hiding your iPad inside a specially adapted spiral notebook.
Of course the ban is irritating. And there’s a strong argument that government agencies should never be allowed to get away with prohibitions they can’t properly justify, however minor. But I hope I’ll be forgiven for suggesting that if you’re driven to such heights of righteous fury every time you’re asked to interrupt your screen-staring for half an hour or so, the FAA’s regulations might be the least of your issues.
All of humanity’s problems, Blaise Pascal famously almost said, stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a cramped airplane seat flicking idly through the SkyMall catalogue, or a terrible inflight magazine called something like Stratospheres. Perhaps, as one psychologist argued last week, we’re enraged by such trivial things because we need some target for anger that evolved to serve the purposes of survival, but which we no longer need. Perhaps (to extrapolate from the arguments made in a 2011 book on the psychology of annoyance) we’re so desperate for consistency and predictability that what really infuriates us isn’t being denied our iPads, but being denied our iPads for reasons we can’t comprehend. Or maybe we’re deeply enmeshed in what Melanie Klein called ‘the manic defence’, desperately filling every second with busyness in order to avoid uncomfortable feelings.
I don’t know. But I do think it’s safe to say something’s amiss when a movement nominates as its heroic figurehead one Alec Baldwin, owing to the fact that he was kicked off a plane two years ago, after repeatedly refusing to stop playing Words With Friends. There’s an excellent way to avoid that kind of scenario, and it doesn’t require years-long campaigns to change national aviation regulations. It involves simply not being quite so obsessed with playing Words With Friends.
We have a few more months, it seems, of having no choice but to put down our devices for a few minutes in American skies. We should use them as practice – so that, once this brief enforced spell of doing nothing vanishes, and we’re permitted to stare at screens uninterruptedly from airport gate to airport gate, we might nonetheless choose not to do so.