Plugged In Passengers & Travelers: Where is Wall-E?

05/26/2017 02:14 pm ET Updated Jul 24, 2017

I recently served time at Newark Liberty International Airport due to a seven-hour delay, thanks in large part to weather; thanks in large part to it just being the way air travel is these days. I did make it home in the end, which is all that matters, which is why of course air travel will continue as-is at best. It is the science fiction/fantasy manifestation of what I was surrounded by the airport, and forced to participate in, that warrants this commentary.

Online articles abound on the human dystopia as portrayed in Disney/Pixar’s 2008 screen gem, Wall-E, where flaccid and placid humans recline on hoverbeds with glowing touchscreens planted in front of their faces. They suck down large cups of unspecified, liquid diet concoctions (protein smoothies; check.) that suggest even the need to chew has been eliminated. Like those face-placed screens in Wall-E, Newark Airport’s re-vamped terminal configuration features interactive, touch-screen computers at every seat, at every restaurant, bar and station. They exist to serve as entertainment, info and ordering devices, and (let’s be honest) to track consumer-passengers at the terminal. Security monitoring? Targeted advertising? Both in droves, even if it was euphemistically presented to the public as a “Foodie Theme Park.”

The glare of all those devices lined up in rows and arrays looks so 21st c at first glance – but this renovated gadgetland doesn’t provide any info/entertainment access we don’t already carry with us, often in multiples. Every seat sporting its own screen simply doubles and triples the breadth of each traveler’s anti-contact wall of tech. Paired with piped-in tunes set to 11, conversing with travel partners, let alone amicable strangers, is made just about impossible, surely to keep flight-delayed consumers consuming at full-speed and to turn over tables sooner than later. Though the blaringly bright screens could be easily lowered by turning them horizontally or removed entirely from their stands, nowhere did I see it being done.

The interactive touch screens at Newark Liberty International are old hat technology, yet they were glitchy and problematic. Every item I ordered required a series of clicks and screen changes, leaving me feeling tracked, monitored and too self-serviced despite airport-inflated, full-service pricing. Menus did not display all options or items and transactions errored and triggered separate, online bank security clearancing procedures via apps and texts. My travel partner and I wound up being in constant contact with our server (as in the human, referred to in past centuries as waiters and waitresses) anyway, which was going on all around us. Table service old school – imagine that? Also, my touchscreen was filthy. I had to ask our server to clean it. So now, it’s not just the icky tabletops we must chase down….

In this day and age of “smart”-device addiction and chronic use, do we really need more incentive to remain so glued? And don’t tell me that everyone is busy doing work – it takes only a momentary glance to note the scroll-scroll-swipe-swipe-tap-tap manual action of social media usage. I think back a bit to a woman I observed, with her two sons at a restaurant (we chatted a minute and so I can verify their connection to each other). One boy wore a paper birthday crown and sash. The three sat in silence for the duration of the meal. The women paused on her iPad long enough to take a few pics of herself with the boys, which she then posted as she resumed her solitary, zero-connection-with-kids surfing. I am also reminded of onboard video/TV screens in family cars, where youngsters in their car seats are subjected to passive, repetitive kiddie entertainment distraction from day one. Parents/caregivers running even brief errands in town plug Junior in – and the plugging-in lets up less and less.

The touchscreens at Newark – and wherever else they are showing up – take us one giant leap closer to the dystopian society of isolated, sedentary travelers as portrayed in Wall-E. I guess we could view our personal conveyances, our cars, as high-speed equivalents to the hoverbeds in Wall-E. My State, with abysmal cell phone laws that are nearly unenforceable, leaves our travelers distracted to the point of Wall-E-esque stupification, making destruction machines of our “hoverbeds” as mesmerized drivers attending 24/7 to their social media and text conversations relegate their actual driving/traffic monitoring to a distant and deadly second place. I am not sure which is more scary.

photo by kimann

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