“You are talking to me like I don’t understand what you are saying. I understand what you are saying, I don’t accept what you are saying,” shouted the bespectacled woman who would soon have tears running down her indignant face. “I’m not from this country. I don’t have a phone. I have kids with me. What am I supposed to do!?” The customer service representative at the airline desk spoke slowly and explained again, as if to a spoiled child, that all of the hotels were full and customers were now responsible for finding and booking their own, but not to worry, customers would be reimbursed after going online and submitting the necessary information with a paid receipt. The woman stared blankly at him, and stepped aside to wait for a supervisor. Now she would cry.
I write this while sitting in an airport, on my way home from the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting, waiting for the flight I was supposed to take last night. After idling on the tarmac for 3- hours-worth of 15 minute “we’ll be leaving soon folks” intervals, the flight was canceled. Within the hour, another flight from the same airline was canceled. We all had to rebook, and most of us were unable to get a flight until the next morning. The line at customer service, as you might imagine, was both long and slow—the kind of long and slow that turns fellow customers into comrades, bound by collective suffering and mutual animosity toward a shared enemy.
It was in this line, under these conditions, unpleasant for us all, that the imbrication of technology with inequality became painfully clear.
First, there was the waiting itself. It turns out that I could have skipped the line altogether, arranging everything through phone calls and websites. Of course, having been explicitly directed to the service desk, nobody on either of the two flights realized DIY was an option until an agent announced it about 3 hours in to the waiting. Amidst the loud grumbling, which included my own exasperated comments, it struck me that only some of us could have skipped the line—namely those of us with smartphones and a relative sense of comfort with such devices. The rest of us, those of us without phones, without a charge, or without the skills to navigate the Internet on mobile devices, never had a chance at getting out quickly.
Second, there was the privilege of communication. Even though I apparently didn’t have to wait in line to see an agent, I did. For several hours. As did the rest of the passengers on the two canceled flights. Between talking/commiserating with one another, many of us pulled out our phones, ipads, and even laptops. We notified family members that we would be late. We called friends to pass the time. A man in a suit seemed to be conducting business deals. I posted a picture of the line to Facebook and felt comforted by the self-elicited sympathy of Likes and comments. That is, for those of us with the means to expand our communicative circles, the hours-long wait was not, entirely, wasted. It was social and productive. And our own social and productive use of mobile technologies, though a means of connection for us, become a mechanism of isolation for those without these technologies or without the capacities to use them. How many times, I wonder, did someone without access to the outside world look up in search of a an eyeball, only to find so many of the eyeballs gazing intently at a screen?
Finally, there was the woman I referenced in the opening paragraph—the woman with kids, without a phone, and, so I found, without the cash for a room. Even if she had known, as none of us did, that she could skip the line, this would not have been an option. She, no matter what, had to wait, foregoing access to ideal flight times (i.e., flights leaving that night instead of the next day), and missing out on free hotels. After waiting, she was expected to do it all herself anyway. “Find a hotel,” they told her, as though this required no equipment or skill.
Instead, this woman relied on the one technology available to her: her body. She used her voice to first ask for help, and then demand it loudly. She used her tears to convey dismay. She used her hands, which would eventually both flail defiantly and wipe tears dejectedly, to punctuate her expressions. In the end, a supervising agent agreed to bus her and her children 45 minutes from the airport to an available hotel room. The agent booked the ride and the hotel. There would be no monetary cost, as this woman paid instead in public humiliation and emotional exhaustion.
Jenny Davis is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at James Madison University and a regular contributor for Cyborgology. Follow Jenny on Twitter @Jenny_L_Davis
Headline pic via: www.origami-kids.com