Long before a handful of companies that will no doubt become recognizable names in the very near future (GoGo and Row 44) were anything more than long term, expensive business plans, I began to dread their existence. For me airplane trips, long and short, have always been an oasis of productivity and introspection, professional and personal. For as long as a plane was in the air you were theoretically unreachable, faced with only a handful of choices: reading, working (as long battery on your computer lasted), listening to music (thank you Apple and before that Sony), writing (to the extent anybody still puts pen to paper), watching the occasional bad movie, or perhaps even sleeping. It truly was that last bastion of privacy where decisions on what to do with these finite periods were genuinely yours to make. Neither work, nor children (unless you were flying with them), nor weather could truly influence what path you selected.
I am sitting here now flying over Nebraska from San Francisco en route to NYC resisting the urge the pay twelve dollars to open the floodgates to real-timiness and kiss goodbye the incredible productivity roll I have been on since the plane launched itself into a clear blue winter day. Enough has already been written, far more eloquently than I ever could, about the effects of the ever vanishing line between work and everything else in this increasingly connected world. Sure WiFi, 3G and the rapidly proliferating ecosystem of incredible mobile devices delivering an endless sea of real time news, email, statuses and tweets has in some ways made us more efficient, but it has also enabled and often encouraged us to make subtle compromises with the things we used to care a lot about: reading and specifically long form journalism or fiction, writing for work and pleasure, listening to music, and general relaxation.
But back to airline WiFi. It is rare I have the luxury of flying across the country on anything other than a redeye, but for this specific trip it occurred to me I could actually accomplish more sitting undistracted on a plane trying to do six specific things than I could if I were in the office fielding calls all day.
- Unpack the 10,000+ emails sitting in my inbox that either need to be responded to, deleted, or filed permanently to my hard drive in the unlikely event I ever need to retrieve them.
- Actually write one of a few different documents that have distinct and time sensitive due dates to be presented to large and fast moving clients.
- Write this very article that I had been mulling over since before the holidays.
- Blow through the eight8 business related magazines that have been collecting dust and providing me with endless guilt on the corner of my desk.
- Complete my 17th annual "Bestest" list of my favorite film and records which I have been distributing since long before the recipients were 'friends' and 'followers' in the age that predated Netflix and iTunes.
- Prepare for the all day meeting I was flying to NYC for in the first place.
This is not to say that being online right now wouldn't enable a different kind and level of productivity, but I know how that story would go. I would log on and almost immediately four hours of new emails would pour in. Some of them would be seemingly "urgent" at which point I would then go about responding furiously to these fire drills, engaging other people, fielding their responses, and then forwarding them along. While this was happening, new emails would slowly drip in, and I would then go through the process of reading, responding and deleting them. Of course flying West to East the clock is also ticking against me, as the East Coast mails started when I got on the plane, and the West Coast mails will be flowing long after I land.
When not trying to stay on top of email, I would drift onto the broader net, reading the NYTimes, HuffPost, and various blogs. The net net would be that five hours would evaporate, and I would be no further down my list of things to do than I was before the flight. By the time I landed the best I could say for myself was that I basically kept my head above water, and made zero progress in lifting the heavy bags off my back. The irony is that a year ago, these urgent requests would have been no less urgent but my recourse and ability to respond would have been constrained to the time when I reconnected. Life would have gone on. The fires that were really fires would still be raging, and those that weren't actually fires would have burned themselves out without needing me. I remember reading that Napolean reputedly waited six months before opening his mail, knowing that by the time he did, most of it would no longer require a response.
Sure I could have watched a movie on Netflix or Hulu, stayed up to date on breaking news, done some online shopping, and yes responded to email in real time, but I would have lost so much. I would have sacrificed the freedom to make my own choices, to prioritize and work through list of things that were the most important to me before boarding the plane. Being accessible everywhere all the time is often paralyzing. Certain places in the world have always existed and maintained a sense of sacredness. For some people it's a church, for others a mountaintop, for me there has always been something peaceful and liberating about flying above the clouds, disconnected from the world. Airline WiFi creates a kind of tether to the earth, kind of like Jack's beanstalk, but real. I'm sure eventually I'll forget I felt this way, and will think about flying as the most productive email time possible. That will be a sad day.