July 31, 2002

A Socio-Cultural Reading of Flying

Category: Anthropology — Biella @ 1:00 am

So, lately, I have been traveling, a lot. I have flown so many times in the last 1.5 years but have barely collected any airline miles because I have traveled on all sorts of random carriers, following the cheap fares that I find on the net. I am bound on another trip tomorrow to yet another hacker
being held in America’s oddest city, Las Vegas. This time, I will be driving across the blackness of the desert late tomorrow night to arrive in the flood of lights that is Vegas at dawn.

Whenever I fly though, I can’t help thinking about the experience as a way to reflect upon and learn about American society and culture. Maybe it has to do with the fact that since I fly cheap airlines, I end up flying through three random American cities, like Denver, Las Vegas, and Columbus to get to my one destination. Running madly across the airport to barely catch my connection gets me thinking about what we can learn about “America” via the experience of flying. I can’t really give justice to what you can derive from the experience of traveling across the sky in a small blog entry but here are some small tidbits.

So, when you first walk on to a plane, you have to pass first class, and I basically gawk at all the passengers because, well, not entirely because I am envious of the large, roomy seats, but because I nearly always count the number of males vs. females. Invariably, the males win out. Hmmm, the “gendering” of society can be read simply by walking through the first class section of most major US airlines.

Then, I head over to my seat and pretty much always whip out the Skymall magazine not because I am looking for some “neat” gadget for my pet or uncle but as part of my quest to understand the ways that middle class America is conceived of by our marketers. The Skymall magazine is this cultural artifact that strives for reaching out to this ideal-type, platonic form of an American middle class family unit and in the process also constructs this form. It asks: if we have a family that has everything (a suburban house, 2.3 healthy children, a stable, high paying corporate job, 1 dog and 1 cat), what sorts of stuff can make their lives even more comfortable, even seemingly more safe from life? One new item particularly blew my mind away on my last perusal of the magazine. It was this lie detector for using at work and at home. The online version does not in any way give justice to the print version where they suggest using it on your teenage daughter to see whether she really is babysitting or out with her friends. Here is part of the the text:

“So when your daughter calls you on your cell phone to tell you she’s babysitting for a neighbor, you’ll know if she’s out with her friends beyond curfew. You can also discover whether a salesman or business affiliate is telling you the truth..”

Like what the heck is this all about?

Ok, aside from the fact that it just seems inherently problematic that this ad and product emanates a vision of society in which the general, normal precondition between people is mistrust, this little gadget speaks a million trillions words about American culture and societal trends. Well, I have already mentioned the whole issue of mistrust, then there is generational conflict in which adults and kids have no basis for mutual respect and trust for each other, and then the rise of and creepy desire for surveillance where we can not only monitor movement but the depths of our emotional stances. Skymall and its stuff are there to make our existence in this mistrustful American landscape just slightly more comfortable and safe by providing us with this wonderful gradgetry. Maybe Skymall should at least be a little more honest in the ad and tell parents to use it for what they really think parents want to use it for: to make sure their daughters are not having sex or taking drugs.

Finally, there is the whole arena of “conversations” on planes. They generally take one of two forms. The “silent until 15 minutes before the plane lands” or the “I will tell you my life story though you are a total stranger” forms. There are on opposite ends of the same spectrum Judging from traveling in other countries and what other people have told me, these conversational modes are pretty common for Americans. But it is too late for me to dissect the modes of conversation on planes right now. I will leave this as food for thought. Oh and by the way, the “LCD” of the lie detector “displays 9 levels from ‘truth’ to ‘false statements,’ and 9 levels of stress.” Ahhhh, the 9 levels of truth…

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