One of the big news stories this week was about JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater, who famously unleashed an expletive-ridden rant over his plane’s PA system, then pulled emergency-evacuation chute lever and made a dramatic sliding exit onto the JFK tarmac. It is only appropriate, I think, that we take this moment to consider the intersection between e-readers and airplane safety. Please pull your desk chairs into the full, upright position and enjoy the following musings from Dennis Baron. (Also, did you know the TSA has a blog? It’s very helpful and even funny!) –Lauren Appelwick, Blog Editor
By Dennis Baron
The take-off and landing mantra – “At this time please turn off all electronic devices and return your seat backs and tray tables to their full upright positions” – is as familiar to fliers as the Miranda warning is to criminals and fans of “Law and Order.” But when Amazon brought out its Kindle ebook reader in 2007, one prescient blogger warned that the traditional formula would soon change: “‘Please turn off your book for takeoff’ is going to be a real wake-up call for early adopters who think they don’t need to carry a book anymore,” a sentiment that was echoed in a New Yorker cartoon last Spring. Readers of conventional books thought they were sitting pretty, that they could read on a plane anytime they wanted. But it turns out that flying books can be dangerous too.
First the Transportation Safety Administration banned reading during the final hour of international flights, to prevent terrorists from reading verses in their Korans. (When the TSA learned that Islam forbids the destruction of the Koran, the ban was quietly lifted.) Now the Interweb is buzzing with unconfirmed reports that, although laptops and ebook readers are shielded to minimize electronic interference, conventional printed matter lacks such safeguards and poses a potential danger in the air. For one thing, the static discharge created by 150 passengers paging through their books or magazines may be enough to throw off a plane’s sensitive controls. And with conventional reading matter, there’s also chaos theory to worry about. If a butterfly flapping its wings somewhere over the Himalayas can cause a tornado in Topeka, imagine how the breeze generated by all that in-flight page-turning can disrupt a plane’s final descent into O’Hare.
Add to all this the patently dangerous content of much reading matter. Books have been known to cause wars and revolutions, lawsuits and fatwas, eyestrain and acute somnolence. What’s to prevent them from inciting passengers or even crew members to do something regrettable? And how is the flight crew supposed to soothe a traveler sent round the bend by the constant rustling of newspapers, a sound far worse than the crying of unhappy babies? With a packet of fat-free mini-pretzels?
So, besides stowing your tray tables and returning those useless headsets, it may not be long before the flight attendant’s message is revised yet again: “Please close all your books. Pens and pencils down. And you back there in 34F, yes you, eyes on your own pretzels! We know you have many choices when you fly. We just want to narrow some of them down a bit.”
Dennis Baron is Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois. His book, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, looks at the evolution of communication technology, from pencils to pixels. You can read his previous OUPblog posts here or read more on his personal site, The Web of Language.