Yesterday I got back from UXPA 2018, which was held in a beach resort near San Juan, Puerto Rico. It’s a long way from the Bay Area, so the trip required me to spend some time waiting in airports for connections. At Newark International Airport, I was surprised by the proliferation of screens everywhere. Finding a place to enjoy an undistracted meal proved futile; after much walking around, I resigned myself to the fact that every restaurant seat in this terminal would come equipped with a screen. This, after a three-and-a-half-hour redeye flight in which I couldn’t sleep, my insomnia due in no small part to the passenger next to me not knowing how to turn off the screen in front of her. (As with many other airlines, United now conveniently provides a “personal” screen to every passenger in their airplanes.)
I’m not particularly fond of air travel. But one aspect of flying I’ve long enjoyed is that it affords me the ability to “turn off” for a while — to not focus on what’s happening in my mailbox, or Twitter, or what have you. Instead, I use the time to read or listen to music or audiobooks. Yes, I’ve traveled with an iPad for years. That’s where I do most of my reading. Sometimes I’ll also watch a movie or TV show on it, or even play a casual game. So I’m not new to having a screen in front of my while I travel. But it used to be my choice as to when and where it comes out. Now these things are everywhere during the travel experience. They’re in front of you when you’re in your seat in the airplane. They’re in front of you when you’re eating a sandwich at the terminal. They’re even in front of you when you’re paying for the sandwich. (Most shops in the terminal I was in at Newark have replaced convenience store attendants with self-checkout stations, all featuring iPads as the primary user interface.)
I’m guessing the proliferation of screens during the air travel experience is the result of airlines and airport operators discovering the value of your attention. In the “bad old days,” you’d buy your food and then sit there doing “nothing” (other than eating) for thirty minutes to an hour. If you’re like most other passengers, you’d be flying alone, with no-one else to talk to. Yes, you probably had at least one other screen on you (such as an iPhone) to keep you entertained, but the airline/airport operator couldn’t easily monetize your attention on that screen. So now they provide you with devices where you can access an information environment of their own devising: one in which you can continue to order more food or products or what have you. As a nice side benefit, this probably also reduces the costs of each transaction, since they don’t need as many people working in these restaurants and shops if every seat comes equipped with its own self-service checkout register.
Win-win-win, right? I’m not sure. I felt exhausted just looking at that sea of screens. When arriving for a connection such as the one in Newark, I’m usually tired and a little dazed after sitting for hours in a confined, uncomfortable space. I’m also trying to get a read on the physical environment of the terminal: I need to know how to get to the gate for my next flight, how much time I have until it starts boarding, and (not infrequently) where the nearest restroom is. As a result, my attention is often already compromised in these places. The proliferation of screens trying to “engage” me doesn’t offer respite in this environment; it does the opposite. I found myself pining for a quiet corner where I could have a cup of coffee without stuff flashing in my face.