My Layover in the Future
Last weekend, I took what I had thought of as an indulgent trip—a weekend away from New York where I live to Louisville, Kentucky, where my boyfriend has been working on a play for the last month. Why was it indulgent? I teach college writing and it’s a very busy time in our semester. I would be collecting essays the day before leaving, and I should really spend time over the weekend grading them. But I made myself feel better: I’d read papers while I was flying, while I was waiting at gates, during my layovers, during downtime in Louisville. Heck, I could even finish grading them by the time I got back to school in Brooklyn on Monday.
It was also indulgent because I would be flying. Isn’t the airline industry one of our biggest consumer evils? A monopolistic industry where products have been cut up into little pieces, so much of it jettisoned by business travelers and frequent flyer mile hoarders? Isn’t flying one of the most wasteful-slash-harmful, things you can do—money-wise, destroying the environment-wise, and health-wise? I have this memory of going to the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History in Albuquerque years ago, on a nice slow road trip around the country with a close friend. There was a computer program connected to an old-school keyboard and monitor there that you could use to calculate how much radiation you had been exposed to in your life and when I put in my yearly air travel my number spiked so dramatically I caught my breath. But flying to Louisville was worth the exposure, I told myself. I’d never been, and I really wanted to see the play, and the boyfriend.
The time in Louisville was great. If you haven’t been there I’d highly recommend it. We mainly stayed downtown and ventured a bit down Bardstown Road. Most of the stores and restaurants we went to have that artisanal fixation that Brooklyn does, but, at a much smaller scale, it is charming and approachable, and the cocktail menus are creative and formidable. I could also give you details about some good walks, the kind of antiquing that actually makes you feel like you are finding treasure, and a run past some cool downtown street art to a dramatic bridge, but I’m not writing a travel porn about people lucky enough to fly away for a weekend.
What I really want to tell you about is my first layover. You’re thrilled, I can tell. My ticket had me stop in Philly—two hours from New York by car and one hour by plane—and there I had a couple hours to kill. I never do this when I’m alone, because, as I’ve clearly established, I’m very conscientious about overindulgence, but I thought it might be nice to have a beer. I could read papers while I drank it. Where would I have said beer?
Flying out of New York, I had noticed a new phenomenon at LaGuardia, an overall feeling, really—the feeling of being in the future. I had packed a late lunch so I breezed by sleek food courts where neon lights lit up fancy-looking fast-food places I’d never heard of, ordered coffee at a spot that touted its fair trade status, and, the most bewildering part, as I neared my gate, encountered a number of restaurants where people sat at tables and bars, each seat with an iPad glowing in front of it. It kind of freaked me out, especially when I overheard a woman sitting at one complaining about how the wine she had picked from her menu screen wasn’t available. She’s stuck in my mind even now, sitting there under hair blow-dried that morning, in her business suit, clearly a few drinks in, loud and entitled. What need did we have for places like that, anyway? I thought. Why complain about a thing that’s not even important?
I’m starting to feel like this little story of mine is revealing too much about my insecurities and judgments, but I’ll do my best to push that all aside: What I want to tell you next is that in Philly I ended up sitting at a bar exactly like the one where the business-suited lady had sat, only it was at least five times the size. I approached it tentatively, freaked out by the future aspect but wanting to get a closer look at the row of beer taps I spied. I chose a seat at the end of a long table, where there was no one in the spots next to or in front of me. Everyone in my vicinity was either looking at the iPad in front of them or the one they had brought with them. I fiddled with the screen in front of me for a moment, having trouble figuring out how to order my local craft beer. The damn thing kept forcing me to upgrade to a larger size for two extra bucks, and I had to call over one of the few waitresses walking around to show me why I couldn’t understand how to make the various menus understand my will. With a deft swipe of her manicured finger, she solved my problem, and I laughed at myself, as if I was saying, silly me, why couldn’t I get with the program and figure it out on my own? “It’s okay,” she said, “people ask all the time,” and then she was gone.
When the iPad asked me a few brief questions and located my flight, I was relieved. I wouldn’t have to keep my eye on the boarding screen just across the walkway. But, then I decided to set a folder I had with me against the screen so it wasn’t staring at me. What if I lost track of time? I thought. What if I missed my flight? I took a deep breath and started reading the top paper on the stack.
I teach students in the engineering school at my university, and currently I’m assigned to the second semester writing course, which focuses on science and innovation. Many of my students end up writing about social media and mobile technology—our increasing dependence on these phenomena. The internet is taking over our lives. Everyone knows everything about us. Often, they follow this thread to a place where they value the things we are losing by devaluing physical, face-to-face contact. They implore their readers to put down their devices and have a conversation. But they also understand that our new technologies have altered the way we think and the way we treat each other in intrinsic, implicit ways. And that’s often where the argument stops: we are doomed to become cyborgs, but we should try to go out and enjoy life like in the old days!
I wonder how my students can get past these simplicities we’ve all read about in articles we get to through Facebook links time and time again to tell their reader about what the exponentially increasing pace of technological innovation truly means for them and their specific futures. I want them to be able to fill in the space of our apathy with creative ways, think about how they will harness the effects of the blinking, app-filled, emoticoned present-future that in this airport feels like a virus. And I want the same thing for myself; how can I make my life less about this question that seems like a contradiction: what is the technology is doing to me and how can I avoid it?
Waiting for my Louisville flight, I feel like a bit of an idiot sitting there with a folder in front of the iPad in this pseudo-fancy place. Above me, I notice a row of vintage light bulbs, like the one my boyfriend brought me for Christmas. It seemed like such a novelty then, but we’ve since noticed them in bars and restaurants all over New York. The fancy lightbulbs’ ubiquity, in his words, “just feels like a slap in the face.”
An older middle-aged man approaches one of the seats across from me. He is huffing about something. “This is so weird,” he says, pawing at the screen that belongs to the seat. “Aren’t there any real bars where you can talk to real people around here anymore?” I look up at him and smirk, looking back down. Another man a few seats down murmurs approval above his over-priced burger plate. The grumbling man professes that he spends enough time looking at screens all day, that he will go find the Irish place in the other terminal. I kind of want to follow him but that would be weird so I shrug and look back down at my reading. A paragraph later, from the corner of my eye I see him sit down with a moan. I read a page about a day one of my students went without electricity. The Northeast Blackout of 2003. That was during my first tenure as a New Yorker. The power went out in the afternoon, and when we realized it wasn’t going back on, we left work early, down 14 flights of stairs. Somewhere in the city, I found my friends for a long and joyous walk home across the Brooklyn Bridge with thousands of others, wandered the neighborhood from one candle-lit stoop to the next. It was as close to magic as you get on this earth.
I’m reading a sentence my student wrote about the A/C going out, his house becoming stiller than he’d ever heard it, and the man says something loudly. I can’t remember what, but it made me look up at him and say, “Where are you flying to?” I’ll spare myself recreating everything we said, but I do remember that as we talked, the folks around us looked up from their screens and their plates. They chimed in, another woman who had quietly taken the seat across from me confessed that her nine-year-old son would be happy as a clam at a restaurant that gave each patron a screen. I asked her how she thinks he got to be that way. Her answer was long and about home and the ubiquity of smart phones and the society in school, and then the growing group of us talked about other things, like divorce and long drives and friends dying and colleagues not knowing how to write. It was one of those conversations where you don’t ever step out of yourself but just follow the flow of it. Leaving felt abrupt and sad, but my wristwatch told me it was time to go.
I sat at my gate, full of a barely-formed idea, that our best hope is to not treat our daily technologies as an indulgence, nor, on the other hand, as a given. That is to say, I think there are ways we can train ourselves to be ready for opportunities to transcend technology self-consciousness. And I’m not talking about doing this willfully—with silent retreats or device-free dinners or wi-fi fasts, even though those are all awesome things—but I mean going out into the world and being open to the moments that sneak up on you, giving you the chance to consider our technologies and cast them aside, almost simultaneously. Of course when I say “you” I also mean “me,” I really mean “me,” but I hope it helps you to think about it this way.
When my flight was announced, the gate attendant didn’t have a microphone but yelled out her instructions. Un-amplified, she sounded like a crazed robot. The trip back to New York involved reckoning with our most recent impending storm, agitating dealings with US Air (never fly them if you don’t absolutely have to, please), two sweet cabbies eager to tell their stories, and a midnight bus from Philly to Times Square, but I’ll spare you that story for now. I have a huge stack of ideas to read.
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