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Of Libraries and Airplanes, When Tech Policy Runs up Against Culture

by Joe Murphy Librarian on November 29th, 2013

Voice calls in air stir a tension that is familiar to libraries.

The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) will propose allowing in-air phone calls in addition to the FAA’s recent approval of non-connected gate-to-gate device use.  The FCC is causing cultural disruption by just putting this idea on the table, upsetting situational expectations. Many travelers and airline steward unions have already voiced their concern, worrying such a policy would disrupt the flying experience; imagining seat-mates talking on their phones throughout the flight.
“… as what is known as a Notice of Proposed Rule Making, in which the agency will invite comments on the idea before making a final decision. The entire process could take months.” – Ryan Knutson for the Wall Street Journal (

I would be against such a change, not as a luddite, but as a frequent flier who values any element of peace I can find in the air. Or maybe it is fair to be a luddite in such a situation – the Luddites defined their own movement as being against technology implementations that disrupted their communities and commonalities.

Airlines like libraries have opened up to modern technology use expectations by allowing device use and are trying to find a balance between what is currently acceptable and what is possible.

It would be up to individual airlines to allow the voice calls and install the technologies to make it possible for plane passengers to have stable connections with cell services (some international airlines now have to turn off that equipment when entering US airspace).

When policy exceeds norms. The possible ruling pits what is possible against what is acceptable.

Allowing unconnected device use was necessary to catch in flight policy up to traveler behavior expectations. Allowing in flight phone conversations shoots beyond what people want in pursuit of rapidly meeting all possibilities, disrupting perceptions of the hoped for experience in the process.

On a plane we expect to travel in peace while we expect to use our tablets and smart phones for entertainment and work. In the library we often expect quiet work areas while we use our devices to read work and study. Opening the entire library to phone conversations may disrupt an established expected atmosphere valued by library users. Opening the flight to full device use may disrupt the sense of peace and personal space in cramped planes. Airlines may find it valuable to look to a library model with allocated quiet areas (or the reverse with conversation zones) to give people the choice of what kind of environment they want to experience. I’ve enjoyed this option in quiet train cars on Amtrak. Or they may hold onto flights as one of the few remaining zones free from phone conversations. A place free of chatter. Like the library, a stable and mostly quiet island in our fast world.

Library angle.

Libraries adapted to the mobile revolution by opening up their spaces and policies to appropriate use of mobile devices in what used to be solely quiet buildings with new quiet zones (for visitors and staff) and policy shifts in support of device use but against voice calls in many library areas.
Libraries shifted with the mobile revolution’s cultural impacts, allowing and facilitating device use while supporting expectations for still relevant traditional library roles.

The lesson is adapt but do not overshoot. It is important to bring policy in line with technology’s potential as well as with societal expectations. Technology is a piece to move as we shift ourselves in line with cultural changes.

The library has been a canary in the coal mine in regards to evolving while considering what is socially acceptable. Libraries can also use this opportunity to take stock of the next shifts and how we may strike a balance between what is demanded and what will be preserved.

– Joe Murphy, Librarian.

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One Comment
  1. Joe Murphy Librarian permalink

    I should note that the real growth here is for in flight non-wifi data access that comes with cell data capability and that successful policies will address voice calls but allow and provide for data usage.

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