Editor’s Note: Michael Bociurkiw is a global affairs analyst, at work on his first non-fiction book on screen and social media addiction. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinions on CNN.
With many of us unlocking our phones almost 50 times a day and devoting five hours of our day to screens, I suppose it was inevitable that revenue-hungry airlines would enable our smartphone and social media addictions by offering Wi-Fi in the skies.
Quickly disappearing is what many of us road warriors regarded as one of the last bastions of calm — the airplane cabin.
In the wild west days of Wi-Fi, as it was making its first appearance on airplanes, I recall boarding the business class cabin of a long-haul Turkish Airlines flight between Istanbul and North America. A group of young men nearby logged on to the Wi-Fi as soon as it was switched on — and proceeded to spend the first hours of the flight chatting away loudly on Skype to their buddies on the ground.
Thankfully, many airlines have now banned Skype and FaceTime in the air, sparing those of us who prefer a quiet in-flight experience (although voice calls aren’t entirely off the table). Besides general discomfort, there are privacy implications. With precious elbow space between seats disappearing, staying out of your seatmate’s pre-departure FaceTime call is becoming increasingly difficult.
Low-cost airlines have made flying available for millions of first-time travelers who have yet to learn in-flight etiquette, so it is not uncommon to be roused midflight by smartphone videos blaring at top volume. In Asia, the practice is so common that I have seen flight attendants struggling to keep the calm.
Which brings me to travel best practice No. 1: Give some thought to the weary traveler next to you. And when faced with this situation, ask the cabin crew to request the passenger use earphones or turn the volume down.
Connect with those around you instead of Wi-Fi
In the past year or so, while working on my forthcoming book on the digital age, I’ve become an undocumented sociologist, observing up close how the travel experience has been transformed, for better and for worse, by technology. Our screens are diminishing the overall travel experience, and airlines and other travel operators share part of the blame for enabling our dependence.
I am old enough to recall the days when climbing aboard a long-haul flight meant hours of uninterrupted glee. I’d be completely out of reach from workaholic bosses or temperamental editors and oblivious to breaking news on the ground. I’ve watched more movies in the air than on the ground, gazed at stunning sunrises over the Arctic snows, done some of my best writing in the air, and have forged lifelong friendships.
Nowadays, I evangelize to friends and colleagues on the benefits of limiting screen time while on the road. Think of it this way: While you’re staring at that screen in the airline lounge, the love of your life or the job offer of a lifetime could stroll by and you wouldn’t notice. I often ask, what kind of society have we become when two people can sit next to each other on a 13-hour flight and not trade even one word or glance?
One of the most incredible experiences I’ve had at 30,000 feet was on a four-hour flight between Toronto and Edmonton with an off-duty Air Canada flight attendant sitting next to me. Soon after I said hello, I learned that she was the airline’s lone Afghan flight attendant. Things unexpectedly turned deep when she volunteered to read my soul. She closed her eyes tightly, clasped my hands for what seemed like an eternity, and proceeded to reveal aspects of my relationship with my father to which I was only privy to. We chatted the entire flight and kept in touch afterward.
Instead of connecting to Wi-Fi, maybe we should connect with those around us. This summer in Milan, the city was hit by a lightning rail labor strike. By the time the departure board turned red, I had already become acquainted with the Italian businessman standing next to me on the train platform — so it was a no-brainer to organize a group rescue taxi to the airport.
That brings me to travel best practice No. 2: Take a moment to at least share a glance or greet your fellow traveler. If things go sideways, they could be a lifesaver.
The people who brought the dreaded Wi-Fi to the air are making it harder to socialize while aloft — ironically, at the front of the airplane, where people pay the most money to sit. I’m seeing the proliferation of more privacy barriers between seats in premium cabins, especially on long flights. The pod seats on JetBlue Mint Suite and Delta One cabins now have doors, along with other means of isolation. Fortunately for mobile socialites, some airlines, like Emirates, have an open area where you can grab and snack and chat with fellow passengers.
Of course, technology can be a godsend, especially when things go wrong. I’ve developed the practice of powering up certain travel booking apps at the first hint of a disruption. It’s allowed me to skip congested airline customer service counters and avoid extortionate airport hotel prices when waves of sudden cancellations trigger huge price spikes.
Travel and the selfie culture
It isn’t only in airports or airline cabins where technology has hijacked what used to be an almost romantic experience. Living where I do near the Pacific Northwest, tourist flock to our waters in the hopes of capturing a glimpse of our magnificent killer and humpback whales, as well as our stunning views and exceptional biodiversity. Clayoquot Sound’s Ocean Outfitters encourages its guests to bring along a mobile phone “to capture an ocean loving selfie.”
But are nature seekers really getting their fix watching nature reveal itself from behind the screen of an iPhone? Are we wasting our time taking selfies or is the practice worthy of what Google’s Abigail Posner describes as our human need to share “our everydayness?”
Get our free weekly newsletter
One of the most stunning discoveries of my book research is one of the saddest — at least as far as humanity is concerned. Strolling after class one day at California State University, Dominguez Hills, Larry Rosen, a research psychologist and professor emeritus, told me that humans are the only species on the planet with the ability to daydream with creative thoughts — something he calls “slack time.”
But excessive screen time is diminishing that skill. “If you don’t use it, you lose it. And we’re losing something that’s uniquely human,” Rosen said.
So next time you’re at 30,000 feet and faced with the choice of powering up your smartphone, speaking to your seat mate, or gazing through the window, choose carefully. Remember: use it or lose it.