By now, you've probably heard the news that the FAA is reconsidering its policies on using electronic devices on airplanes. In truth this is primarily a technical issue, coupled with an administrative question of who will pay to actually test devices, but that hasn't stopped some people from expressing their support or opposition on a variety grounds. Peter Bright at Ars Technica is one of those people, offering a defense of the existing gadget ban that I honestly thought had to be a joke—but the punchline never came. The crux of Bright's vague argument is two-fold: that there is still a valid safety concern even if the devices cause no interference, and that we should support the ban for "spiritual" reasons.
There is still a small safety argument that resonates. ... If something goes wrong—which is admittedly rare, but not unheard of—it is probably to the advantage of all involved that they're paying at least some attention to what is going on around them. As safety measures go, they don't get much cheaper or more inoffensive.
But the more important reason to preserve the current rules is a spiritual one. There is something to be said for not being transfixed by an electronic gizmo. These devices have encroached on almost every aspect of modern life. Even in places that should be sacrosanct—at the cinema or theater, for example—sporadic buzzing, bleeping, and illumination courtesy of pocket-sized gizmos is abundant. I freely admit, I'm no angel here. Many's the time that I've interrupted a romantic meal at Buffalo Wild Wings to investigate a surprising Buzztime answer.
Those brief stints in which we must turn off our machines—the few minutes between push back from the gate and the extinguishing of the seatbelt sign, and the corresponding blackout at landing time—are something almost unique in modern life. Those rare moments in which our entertainment must come from within, not without. This is a perfect time to reflect on the journey ahead or the trip just taken. An all-too infrequent opportunity to quietly contemplate the world we live in and our place in the universe. A brief calm juncture in our otherwise hectic lives.
I'm not sure I'm convinced that the 0.5 seconds it takes to drop a Kindle and start screaming is going to cost anyone their life in a plane crash, but at least Bright admits that's the "small" argument. Unfortunately the only thing that's "big" about his other argument is the ego it must have taken to make it. I too think there's "something to be said" for switching off your gadgets once in awhile, but I'm not about to tell anyone it's necessary for their spiritual health, and I fear declaring cinemas to be "sacrosanct" is a bit much.
But even if you subscribe to this school of thought in full—and are the type of person who isn't satisfied with turning off your own gadgets, instead needing to tell other people to turn theirs off too—what does any of this have to do with airplanes? Every time a new technological tool is adopted into a new part of the average person's routine, someone is out there complaining that it "encroaches" on our lives, and those people have yet to accomplish anything except making themselves look increasingly foolish as time goes on. Many of us still know at least one holdout who bizarrely refuses to even own a cellphone (but will gladly borrow them from others when the need arises), and regardless of whatever "spiritual" benefits they think they are reaping, it generally hasn't delivered them to nirvana. Just because airplanes happen, randomly, to be one of the places that people are forced to tear themselves away from their gadgets, it doesn't make them temples of the Luddite religion. Philosophical questions didn't enter into the inception of the FAA's ban, and they shouldn't enter into the debate about its future.