The guy in seat 12A

September 14, 2007, 2:14 PM UTC
Fortune


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Last week I did my usual drill and flew someplace. It was a long flight, but I got my upgrade and things were okay. There was only one glitch, something about a battery charger that needed a switch-out of a power pack back at the gate. We taxied out. We taxied back. I was convinced, of course, that we were back at the terminal to stay. It’s happened to me so many times lately. Taxi out. Taxi back. Sit in the airport for six hours. Take off. Land at dawn. That kind of thing.

But this time, no, the captain was jolly and reassuring, the powerpack was switched out, we rolled off and landed pretty much on time in New York. So no complaints there, for a change.

In fact, no complaints at all, really. Just a scary experience. It was the guy in the next seat. Sometimes you get a chatty one, and that’s not so good. Other times, mostly in Coach, you get babies and entire families eating salami and cheese out of a Baggie. This time, the guy sits down, he sort of looks like, well… me. Blazer, which he has the Flight Attendant hang up. Casual slacks, this being a non-work day. Collared shirt. No tie. Concerned expression.

He’s in the window seat. And here, over nearly five hours (six if you count tarmac time) is what he did:

  • Dozed (20 minutes, total);
  • Worked on his BlackBerry, which was not in a two-way mode by which it could receive or send mail (3 hours, 50 minutes);
  • Looks at a print out of a PowerPoint presentation (30 minutes).

Here are several things he did NOT do during the time we were confined together:

  • Talk;
  • Smile;
  • Respond to polite observations (“I wonder how long we’re going to be on the ground here”)’;
  • Get up, even once, to stretch his legs or use the restroom;
  • Watch a movie or use the personal in-flight entertainment system;
  • Eat the in-flight meal, although he does have a few hot nuts;
  • Drink anything except water with a bit of cranberry juice in it.

I don’t care that the guy didn’t talk to me. I am generally silent throughout a flight. But the non-response thing creeped me out a little. When somebody says to you, “Oh no, not again,” as the plane is pulled back to the gate, it is customary to say, “Yeah, this stinks,” or even, “Uh-huh.” But this guy? He just kept working his BlackBerry and catnapping.

Finally, I guess, it was the BlackBerry thing that was the weirdest… the fact that all human interaction or behavior resolved itself down to intense fascination and activity on that device, which was disconnected from the web and therefore nothing more than a dumb terminal to be worked with one’s thumbs.

I don’t think I would have had the same reaction if the guy was on a laptop. Lots of people honk around on their laptops during a flight and I think nothing of it. But there was something about this that gave me the willies.

Wherever you go these days, people are not there. Their bodies, perhaps, occupy the space near us, around us, but they are somewhere else, on a phone, checking in on their messages, essentially Not Here. Sometimes you can go through an entire city block and not see one person just walking through analog space, occupying the moment in real time.

And then there was this guy in the seat next to me, almost non-corporeal, with no physical or personal needs other than to work his BlackBerry and get a little shuteye now and then. His hair was gray. His slacks were gray. And in my mind’s eye now, his skin is gray.

There was a great American philosopher back about 50 years ago who wrote a comic strip called Pogo. His name was Walt Kelly. The most famous quote from the strip went like this: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” No kidding.

Is it too late for us? Can’t we turn ourselves around? Come on, people! Wherever you go today, wherever you are, take a moment to unplug yourself and look about you. And if you can, turn to the person next to you and say hello. Who knows? We may start something.

Or stop it.