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

By James Fallows

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.

KevinKelly.png


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.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/12/todays-anything-with-an-on-off-switch-story/250578/