By now – unless you've been, of all places, on an airplane – you've probably heard that the Federal Communications Commission plans to consider permitting full cell phone use in the skies. That would mean, yes, texting and surfing the web at 40,000 feet. It could also mean that fliers could field phone calls.
Not surprisingly, since word came out on Thursday, thousands of skeptical travelers have begun railing against the idea, mostly on the grounds that airplane travel is miserable enough without the intrusive chatter cell phones would bring. Here's how a petition to the White House opposed to the proposal sums up the objections:
During flights, passengers are forced into a restricted space, often for long periods of time. Forcing them to listen to the inane, loud, private, personal conversations of a stranger is perhaps the worst idea the FCC has come up with to date.
This is no doubt a legitimate concern (just as it forms the basis for the sacred concept of the "quiet car"). We ought to worry less, though, about the other people prattling away on their cell phones, and more about the tweets and texts and emails and inquiries that would tug at us.
Between the full-body scanners and the new baggage fees and that weird way Southwest makes you line up for pre-boarding, airplane travel has lost nearly all of its allures but one: the promise of disconnecting.
There's something wonderful, in a fully networked world, about turning off the phone (because you have to). Just as there's something empowering in that moment when we get to say, "I'll be on a plane," the world's last remaining excuse to abstain from email.
Mostly, disconnected spaces are worth preserving on airplanes because there are so few left down below. Increasingly, subways get cell phone reception. Public parks have WiFi. Everywhere is now a workplace, or is wired to be. Each of these technological transformations of public space has its great benefits. But so too do spaces that celebrate silence, detachment, even boredom. Or actual interaction.
Increasingly, we have to think about ways to create such spaces (by blocking cell signals or barring smart phones). And here is one, on an airplane, already perfectly preserved.