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Technology Issues are Often Social Issues

While much of my formal education lies in the social sciences, my immersion in technology over the last 20 years has made me look at problems as technical rather than social. Usually this is the correct view, but it troubles me that I often solve the immediate problem without realizing the implications. I worked through the Internet bubble, for example, without profiting off the social transformation that became obvious in retrospect.

Perhaps it is only when I have a personal stake do I see the larger implications on interpersonal interactions and society. That is certainly the case with recent announcements that the Federal Aviation Administration is considering lifting the ban on in-flight cell phone use. Looking it as a technology problem, it seemed far-fetched that there could be interference with critical avionics, especially serious enough interference as to cause aircraft accidents. And there have certainly been circumstances where I would have like to call ahead with schedule changes or thoughts that couldn't wait.

In response, it seems as if wireless companies have come up with a reasonable technical objection to this plan. The objection is based not on the possible danger to avionics, but to the wireless network. By flying at high speeds over the towers, cell signals might leap from tower to tower, using cell capacity far in excess of the phone calls being made.

But there is more to this issue than can be discussed from the standpoint of technology. The answer to the question "Is it possible?" is probably yes. That doesn't begin to answer the question "Is it desirable?"

Take a trip I made last week. Upon boarding the flight and settling in, the adjacent seat was filled by a pleasant grandmother type whom I assisted in stowing her carry-on bag. Once seated, she immediately pulled out a cell phone and proceeded to call one of her business subordinates and fire him on the spot. Just prior to closing the aircraft boarding door, she then made the rounds of her superiors to attempt to justify the firing. Fast-forward three hours, and upon touchdown she started once again.

Fortunately, because I had been upgraded to first class for the flight, I was able to obtain the large amounts of alcohol needed to deaden the embarrassment of listening in on the tasteless act of firing a subordinate both long distance and in a public place.

But had in-flight cell phone use been permitted, I would likely have been subjected to this treatment for the entire flight. No amount of alcohol could have addressed that situation. Justifiable action would have been my defense against any resulting charges of air rage.

As is often the case with life's experiences, there is a larger implication of this relatively brief period of discomfort. Many technology advances change social norms and behaviors. How would flyers respond to such an advance as I describe here (which for the most part is a regulatory advance rather than a technology one)? I using my flying time for rest and work, and fear that flyers will spend the majority of time on cell phones, disturbing the relative peace with which I am now able to conduct my own business. Over time, perhaps, social disapproval will limit the use of cell phones to essential conversations, but I have my doubts.

Posted by Peter Varhol on 06/16/2005

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