You know who invented the airplane. Do you remember when you first learned it? Maybe you learned it in kindergarten or on Schoolhouse Rock. The name The Wright Brothers is one of those wholly American icons that gets tattooed on your brain early along with The Pledge of Allegiance. Pledging allegiance to a nation is a pretty heavy idea to lay on a 5 year old, but brainwashing isn’t for now anyway, it’s for later. Ask any American adult who invented the airplane and they’ll tell you before your reach the second syllable. Ask the same adult who is currently Vice-President of the United States and they will likely pause and answer, “Al Gore?” with self-conscious inflection. I don’t know exactly what the Wright Brothers imagined. Perhaps they thought they were bringing humanity the freedom of quicker transport to unimaginable distant places without the numerous physical restrictions of land travel. What the brothers wrought, in terms of individual freedom, couldn’t have become more the opposite. Perhaps they should be called The Wrought Brothers: massive, geographically inconvenient airport complexes that provide real estate to every variety of crappy fast food, but no where close or cheap to park your car. Ellis Island style security queues where your grandmother gets stripped searched for concealed liquid explosive, while the Mafia is probably loading the planes with crates of dope they trucked in through the back gate. $8 for a Bloody Mary on -board and “Please have correct change.” A major American airline will transport 100,000 people everyday between hundreds of cities and brag about their 73% on time arrival record, but they can’t break an f’ing twenty. I think we all got what we deserved for trusting the technical advancement of our society to guys named Orville and Wilbur. Perhaps the parents are to blame.
What’s a more important invention than the airplane? The iPOD. Who invented the iPOD? Steve Jobs? Bono? Whoever is the unsung hero, they gave every man woman and child in the world the freedom to program their own song list without commercial interruption. Because of the iPOD, in just a few short years the individual person has made a great leap forward over the noise of screaming babies, fart contesting FM radio DJs, and the unsolicited gregariousness of certain taxi drivers. But there is one circle of aural Hell from which there is still no real escape. It is the steel cylinder of in-solitude and re-circulated respiratory viruses. It is the commercial passenger airplane. When I’m going on a plane trip these days I take about 10 minutes selecting what I’m going to wear for the next nine days. I take about 10 seconds familiarizing myself with the intra-continental flight details. But I spend an hour planning the music menu I’ll pack into my tiny iPOD MP3 player. I might figure out that I’m going to need at least two hours and twenty-three minutes of successful distraction from the mountain of annoyances that air travel will assault me with under the cloak of customer service.
Every aspiring stand-up comedian has a bit in their set about airline peanuts or lost luggage. My animus for airlines comes from years of real frustration. They will charge me a preposterous amount for the privilege of being buckled into that 500mph jet fuel trajectile, but they will not leave me alone. From before they even close the door the lead flight attendant is on that intercom with her pointless safety procedures, undesired in-flight services, and unyielding solicitations for the flight miles program. The flight attendant herself is lovely, but she sounds painfully bored. She has at once a superb command of English and an un-locatable foreign accent. I’ve long wondered about the weird elocution of all flight attendants where they always stress the wrong syllable. It sounds like something they mis-inherited from BBC war correspondents and telephone sales operators. “We ARE just waiting for the jetbridge to be pulled back FROM the aircraft. We DO appreciate your patience.” Then between all that banality are the updates from the flight deck. The revised and overly optimistic ETA. The cruising speed and the altitude. I just don’t care. “We DO appreciate your choosing to fly WITH Us.” Choosing? Us were like $2 cheaper on Orbitz. They’re saying I choose to make it to the airport no later than 5am, to sit around another hour waiting for Starbucks to open, and then to be stuffed like packing foam into seat 22H between a guy in a golf visor reading a pink business newspaper and a chatty, maybe orphaned toddler who wants to tell me exactly what an airplane wing looks like. Airplanes used to have those comfortless plastic headsets that looked like a stethoscope. Back then I could at least try to escape into an in-flight tape loop of “Rock, Roll and Reminisce” (I’ll revisit my Beach Boys animus some other day). But even then the pilot had the power to cut into the tape loop at any moment with important flight status updates. I am to feel safe and calm in his cool-as-a-cucumber hands. I’d feel safer if he took his eyes off Lake Michigan on the right side of the airplane, and land Our airborne oasis, the sooner the mother fucking better. Now we have hipper, allegedly less expensive, no-frill airlines like the one where the flight attendant uniform is a polo shirt and khaki shorts. These airlines have done me the favor of abandoning all the fluff and replacing it with harmless pranksterism. “For anyone else who DID not plan to fly to Baltimore today, we hope YOU enjoy your flight anyway.” Are you telling me there are people on this plane who aren’t supposed to be? Because I for one would NOT find it humorous to become the unwitting participant of a terrorist suicide mission INTO a the side of a skyscraper.
But amid all the noise, now there is something like serenity. Finally, the iPOD. I choose what I want to hear, how loud, and how many times. Where the true conveniences in passenger flying are the providence of the rich, the iPOD is something almost anyone can own and fit in their pocket. Yet the airlines will still fight to enslave my mind with their own messaging. They will continue to insist that my portable listening device (aka, deprogramming machine) somehow interferes with flight safety. I’ll bet that every passenger flight in the air this instant has at lease one cell phone left turned on. I’ve done it myself, accidentally. Has an airline accident ever been tracked back to the cause of some passenger carelessly operating a small portable listening device? Is there an app for iPhone that turns it into a C-4 detonator? My iPod doesn’t receive or send electronic signals. So, what the real problem?
The real problem, Dear Reader, is that commercial airplane travel is mass media and the idiosyncratic new media is taking over. The Digital Revolution is not about the succession of DVD after videotape. The Digital Revolution, as some call it, is really the collective search for a term. It is a close but incomplete attempt to describe the total historical transformation of our society from institutional control of the message, to the fractious power of the individual. It’s writing blogs and not reading newsprint. It’s Streaming away from the FM dial. It’s pirated song downloads instead of $20 for a mostly mediocre CD. It is also shareholder initiatives to install corporate transparency. Barack Obama raising $600 million from individual donors over the internet. 1 million new Honda Prius’s every year and locally-grown produce. We don’t have a name yet for this historical and cultural era of: Democratizationism, Networkism, Pragmatism, Neo-Indiviualism. And the business model of passenger airlines is to maintain the status quo. The airplane is mass media. Their customers are rapidly becoming more demanding of a new, adaptable, and organic message. If airlines are unwilling to change the way the provide service they may as well start booking their executives on one-way flights to Oblivion. The airlines, in their presently resistant form, can’t survive much longer. But someway or another the passenger will always be there with a carry-on full of underwear, plugged into a set of earbuds, and still requiring transport to unimaginable distant places without the numerous physical restrictions of land travel.
Today the iPodder, the blogger, the DVRr, the $25 contributor, and even the terrorist is King. All this occurred to me on an airplane flight as a drifted through my private thoughts and the sounds of Mitch Miller and His Gang on my iPod (don’t ask who’s Mitch Miller is, just go with it). Suddenly some one is tapping me plaintively on the back of my hand. It was the pretty, semi-foreign flight attendant politely reminding me it was time to turn to off my “earphones.” As I compliantly coiled the thin, white cord, she walked to the intercom station. She was requesting our courtesy to please complete the survey in the back of their in-flight magazine. If I have the courtesy to mail it in, I can get registered to win an iPOD.