Today's 'Anything With an On-Off Switch' Story

The technology guru Kevin Kelly, author of many works including the recent What Technology Wants, writes with this account of a United flight (emphasis added):

This Thanksgiving Eve I was flying back into SFO on a United flight coming in from Mexico City. I was in 2A, a window seat, where I like to sit for the views. There was some spectacular fog at twilight as we were landing in San Francisco that evening. As I have done hundreds of times before, and scores of times on United, I pulled my tiny point and shoot camera from my pocket (a Lumix FH5) and took some photos of the beautiful scene out the window.

As I was doing so the flight attendant tapped me on the back and told me to stop. Huh? Your camera has an on-off switch she says. My camera? I was going to remind her that my overhead light has an on-off switch too, but it was Thanksgiving eve, and I decided to be nice. But I was peeved. When I landed I checked United's website and nowhere does it mention camera on-off policies. Hearing-aids, with on-off switches are okay. But cameras? Never been a problem before.  Is there any scientific reason to believe a point and shoot camera can derail a flight? I will bet not.

I immediately asked a United pilot what I can do if a flight attendant makes an unreasonable request? His answer was that it was in my best interest to obey, no matter what. That means that the usage policy is dictated by the most unreasonable party. I take this absurd request as another example of a policy that has gotten out of hand because it is not based on evidence.

At the same time I am sympathetic to the plight of flight attendants who should not have to decide technical issues concerning electronic gear. An easy solution will be hard to come by, but it must be technical rather than discretionary. If emissions are a problem, they will be detectable; so have a detector system on the plane. If these signals are too weak to detect, they will be too weak to do harm. Let's at least start with some hard evidence rather than fears. Electronic gear type should be innocent until proven guilty.

FWIIW, Here is a shot I got off before I obediently put away my camera.


The "in your best interest to obey, no matter what" and "do it because I said so" principles interestingly show up more often these days in air travel, what with the TSA before you get on the plane and the flight crews once you're there, than in other walks of life apart from people who deal routinely with police. I won't make a larger point for now.

I will say, in a "looking for the bright side" spirit, that there was recently a very nice story in the LA Times about a chorus made of TSA officials from LAX, serenading travelers. The video doesn't appear to be embeddable, but it is worth checking out.
Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in National

From This Author

Just In