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The End Of Offline In Flight? Say It Ain't So

by Eric Weiner
Feb 11, 2009 (All Things Considered)

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Most people hate flying. I love it. Nothing makes me happier than a long flight — the longer, the better. I once flew nonstop from New York to Bangkok: 17 hours of pure bliss. I packed two books and actually read them. I stared out the window and actually had ... thoughts. Some of my best ideas take flight at 35,000 feet. It could be the thin air up there, but I think there's another reason: disconnection. No e-mail, no cell phones. No guilt, either, because at 35,000 feet I am "offline." Don't you love that word, offline? I do. But it is about to go the way of other cherished expressions, like "out of the office " and "on vacation."

Every culture has its out-of-bounds venues, circumscribed places and times in which the normal demands of society no longer apply. Buddhist monks on meditation retreats, college students on spring break. Instinctively, we humans recognize the value of tuning out the world, at least for a while. We know we'll return refreshed and ready to cope again.

These off-limits spaces, though, have been steadily shrinking as technology's reach has expanded. Oddly, we don't put up a fight, but rather embrace this erosion of our leisure space. Many people love their BlackBerrys and iPhones, viewing them as tools of liberation rather than what they really are: electronic tethers, like those ankle bracelets that some convicts have to wear. The airline cabin represents the last refuge from ubiquitous connectivity, the last place where we are forced, for better or worse, to be with ourselves ... and our thoughts.

But, I hear the technothusiats say, just don't log on. No one's forcing you. You can always opt out. If only. Every technology, from the car to the cell phone, starts out as optional and soon becomes mandatory. We can't opt out, lest we be labeled an out-of-touch Luddite or, worse, old.

But, the technothusiats coo, onboard Internet access will be so convenient. Those who can log on at 35,000 feet will enjoy a "competitive advantage." Perhaps, but the first person to send a package Federal Express also enjoyed a competitive advantage — for about two seconds. Once everyone can send a package overnight, the advantage disappears, and all that remains is the expectation.

So, please, airline executives, I beg of you: Don't do it. You've already deprived me of leg room, decent food and dignity. Don't take away my peace of mind, too.

Eric Weiner is author of The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World, now out in paperback.

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