That our freedom must increasingly be curtailed in the face of Islamist terrorism is, of course, cause for righteous outrage. Indeed there are many layers of badness behind the new ban on un-checked tablets and computers on flights from six Middle Eastern countries – which, we now learn, may be extended to all flights to and from anywhere.
The principal one is the threat of a terrorist atrocity; another is the dodgy-seeming control over the situation of our intelligence agencies, and another is the generally arbitrary nature of airport security. I’ve been allowed on international flights with razors and even matches accidentally left in my hand-luggage – security officials were too busy poring over my mascara to notice. It all feels fairly random and desperate.
But there may be a sliver lining to the present ban. And that – on flights without wifi anyway – is that it might force people to be bored. Deeply, unremittingly bored out of their minds. To alleviate that boredom, their only option will be to have a conversation or to read a physical book – after all, on low-cost airlines like Easyjet, which are affected by the ban, there are no movies. Uh oh!
Until recently, aeroplanes were a refuge from the neurological hurly burly of internet-enabled devices. But with the addition of wifi spreading through cabins the world over, even this tiny window in which you had to do something other than scroll through Instragram and Twitter was on the way out. People were just getting used to having the full suite of digital distractions to hand.
So the ban – particularly if it spreads – will be bitter medicine for most but just what the doctor ordered. Screens of all types have been shown to cause anxiety and depression; switching constantly between social media channels and digital entertainment feeds is downright terrible for us. It destroys our ability to concentrate, which – as a recent book on girls' social media use argues – is essential both for advanced cognition and for overall wellbeing. Being deeply absorbed in something outside the self, particularly things like building or making something or solving a mechanical problem, was considered essential for happiness by the famous Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, as well as the philosopher Bertrand Russell.
It’ll be good for people on planes – who often look like zombies plugged into their private screenings of Netflix films, or swiping pointlessly at their friends’ baby pictures – to have to think again. Especially as many of them might need some forcing to pick up a book.
Books were once the go-to of bored people everywhere. No longer. And the disinclination to read now starts young. Teenagers – formerly the most bored, and therefore the most avid escapists into literature – are now choosing the scraps and fragments of Yik Yak and Snapchat over actual books. Cue distractedness, the inability to concentrate, and even possibly – over the long-term – a heightened chance of Alzheimers.
No devices, no reading. What then? The possibility of enlightenment, of course. According to mindfulness gurus, whose philosophy has become ubiquitous everywhere from spas to boardrooms, the sense of not doing anything is a key part of one’s self-realising process. In fact, acquiring the ability to just "be" – including being deeply bored – is integral to developing a sense of peace and calm, according to the (now highly paid) practitioners of the mindfulness movement. Or just look at a recent BBC documentary by Phil Jupitus celebrating boredom, in which he mooned over the joys of long, boring Sunday afternoons in Essex as a teenager. These days were meditative and creative.
I only wish mobile phones would also be banned. Because for. in forcing people apart from all their screens for up to eight hours, the aviation authorities could be giving passengers the digital detox they are so badly crying out for.
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