Written March 28th; edited April 4th
I’m sitting at the Pearson Toronto Airport, waiting for my flight to Boston (and Concord Coach thence to Portland, Maine). Every time, yes, every time I go to an airport and make my way through the various security checkpoints, Something Has Changed, and something that makes me feel less and less attached to the world as it is currently configured. Since I’ve been flying a good bit recently, this is perhaps less remarkable than it sounds.
First of all, there was a significant security upgrade at the Boston Logan airport between the time I flew to Berlin in December of 2014 and when I flew to Berlin in March of 2015. In Canada, preparing to return to the US, there is another one. If you haven’t been through an airport to fly internationally for a while, there is at least one extra step in the arrival process from the last time you flew. Now at some point in the interminable process of trying to get from plane to curb, you go to a kiosk, enter your passport number and flight information, and are photographed, without any headgear or glasses. (I’m really good at being photographed in the blurry process of trying to remove my glasses. This hasn’t hindered my progress…so far, at least). This piece of documentation is collected at some point in the journey, as is the immigration card that you are handed on the US-inbound flight as well as one having to endure multiple passport checks, occasionally drug sniffing dogs, and, if you do this, the luggage collection process. (I’m a carry-on only gal, which saves me one small level of aggravation.)
Today I experienced the mirror side of that experience on my way through the gates to catch my Toronto-Boston flight. In addition to the usual security tap dance, there is a now a kiosk that requests your passport number and flight information and photographs you, prior to being released to the departure area, home of gleaming duty free bottles and cartons, high thrones of shoe shining, and assorted ethnic comestible carts. (Important note: I didn’t realize we were clearing US customs in Toronto prior to flying to Boston; but the feelings are the same.) I guess the theology is that they (whoever they even are these days) want to make sure that the Carla that steps onto the plane is exactly the same Carla who steps off. What horrible scenarios produce this level of paranoid and inconvenience? The mind boggles. I do write this acknowledging that only days ago a German co-pilot performed an act of cruelty and mass-murder on a scale that is hard to fathom when he locked his colleague out of the cockpit and, to the sound of 150 screaming fellow human beings, drove his plane into a mountain, but it is continues to be a challenge to imagine whatever misdeeds the current security environment is trying to prevent on a minute-to minute basis that affects each and every person that passes through the system.
Okay, so that’s security. I get it somehow, somewhere in the deep recesses of my brain. But today, the world of all-knowing, all-seeing electronic devices entered a new level with the twin installations of the Apropos cafes in the Air Canada departure area, where I am now sitting. They are cafes, yes. They have tables and chairs, counters and barstools and food and drink. But at every single spot, counter and tabletop, there is an I-pad. On this device, you can…check your flight information, order your snack and bev, and surf the web. You can even charge your device with the conveniently located plugs. Kindly enough, this service is offered to every single departing customer choosing to sit in the area, whether or not you decide to order anything to eat or drink. As I sit here today, I am surrounded by a sea of humanity, nearly every single one of whom is focused solely on a communicative device, either phone, an I-pad, or a laptop. Even the kleiner kinder, lovely young beings of the multi-cultural variety that populate this most diverse of Western Hemisphere cities, to a rug rat they are all fully engaged with their devices. There is one older American gentleman, sitting near me, dozing with his passport and boarding ticket clutched firmly held in his gnarled hands, waiting patiently for his flight number to be called. He is, I believe, one of the few holdouts.
So I tried, dear readers, I really tried, to join this brave new world. I ordered my beverage on line, but because our American credit cards do not (yet) contain whatever enhanced security device (“the chip”) is now common in Canadian credit cards, I couldn’t pay by myself with the conveniently provided credit card swiper that is also installed on the counter or table. That did require human interaction, and a human actually brought my beverage. I’m so glad that the gratuity was automatically added to my bill, because I’m not sure how you reward non-service service, but apparently the percentage levied is on par with the ordinary service service that I’ve grown accustomed to in my un-cyber life.
I am reminded once again of the cynical remark of one friend a year or so ago. Referring to that cultural icon of cinematic genius starring the former governor of California, she muttered under her breath, “The machines have won.” Me thinks she may be reading this correctly. We are entering a world of planes without pilots, degrees without teachers, restaurants without servers, post offices without mailmen, purchases without clerks, you catch my drift, all of us having our “customized experience” delivered directly to our electronic portal. I wonder if this is what it felt like to sit and watch electricity, automobiles, and airplanes enter the world, watching the transformation with an wary eye, akin to the noble-but-change-resistant Robert Crowley of Downtown Abbey, the Earl of Grantham, or his below-stairs counterpart, Mr. Carson. Like them, I sit and watch and shake my head, not sure if I’m amazed or saddened or just feeling pushed to the side in the race for the ever-more hands-free, human-free future. Only time, it seems, will tell.