Life is an amazing teacher. It taught me a lesson in a 2-hour wait in an airport about how we can use technology to enhance the human senses and experience or use technology in a way that it becomes a barrier to the human senses
Flying back from a cross-country driving trip found me sitting in the Southwest Airlines terminal in San Diego, CA. As usual, the place was crowded with people of all types, races, ethnicities, shapes, sizes, complexions, disabilities, hairstyles, and almost every other diversity you could think of. It is the perfect place for a people-watching, behavior-based leadership training consultant to be stuck for a few hours!
While I was sitting at boarding gate 5 area with my adult son, we started noticing that everyone was looking down at their own individual telephones and very few people were talking with each other. Regardless of age, gender, race, ethnicity, shape, size, complexion, hairstyles, and almost every other diversity you could think of, people were all looking at their phones.
Then I noticed a female airport employee helping a blind man, approximately 60-65 years old, to a seat right next to the boarding gate area. He was obviously blind because he was doing everything by feel, used the white walking cane, and communicated through talking/listening with the airport employee. The employee explained the boarding process and explained that another employee will help him board the plane, then left.
About a minute later I saw the blind man remove a cell phone and start “listening” to it. A few minutes later I saw this man take out a laptop, headphones, separate keyboard, USB Wi-Fi card out of his backpack and plug everything in. He did it all by feel and finding the different cords, plugs, plug receptacles and put it all together. Within 5 minutes this man was communicating on his laptop and it appeared that he was answering e-mail or doing some other type of work. It was terrific to watch someone who was “disabled” be able to use technology to reduce the impact of his “disability” with the use of technology. I then saw the Southwest gate employee come over and talk with the man about the boarding process. As the employee began to speak with the blind man, the man stopped typing, took out his headphone (he was only using 1 ear bud), and although I’m sure he couldn’t see the employee, he turned his head toward the employee and was actively engaged with the employee. After explaining the process, the employee left.
I watched this man for about 10 minutes as he worked from his laptop, and then I saw the same female employee that
helped him to that seat escort an older woman with a kid to seats near the blind man. The kid appeared to be about 9 or 10 years old. He had his boarding passes and other information in a pouch around his neck. It was apparent that the kid was traveling alone and that the woman with him was a relative of some sort. I assumed grandmother because of the age difference and the way she spoke with him. But I also noticed that the kid had a cell phone up to his face the whole time, with headphones in both ears, and didn’t look at the woman when she talked with him or he spoke to her. He just kept looking at the phone in his hands. The employee explained the boarding process and explained that another employee will help get the child boarded on the plane, just like she had with the blind man, then left. The kid didn’t acknowledge the employee or look away from his phone.
A few minutes later, while this kid was still playing on his phone, the gate employee for Southwest airlines came over to the woman and the kid to explain the boarding process and what to expect. The first thing the employee did was try to introduce himself to the child and try to talk to the kid. The kid just continued to scroll through his phone and did not even look at the man. No verbal or non-verbal response to the employee at all. The man tried to talk to the kid three to four times and ask for his name and information. The woman just sat looking at the man and then finally answered for the child. The kid, still scrolling… The employee then explained the boarding process to both, but the kid never once looked from his phone screen, never took out his headphones, and just kept scrolling. The employee asked for his boarding pass and the woman pointed to his pouch around the boy’s neck. The employee asked the kid if he could have the boarding pass and the kid just kept scrolling… Finally, the employee just reached over and carefully took out the boarding pass from the pouch.
As I watched this, I commented to my son that the kid never once looked at the man or acknowledged him by looking at him. Not only did I say it loud enough for my son to hear, but I think I said it loud enough for the woman to hear because she looked at me and then moved her hand in front of the phone and told the kid to look at the man when he’s talking to someone. Only then did the kid look away from the phone and answer the questions from the employee. The kid quickly went back to looking at his phone. The Southwest employee explained the boarding process and that he would help the child board the plane and then left.
From the position I was sitting I could see both the blind man and the kid at the same time without having to adjust my position or even look in a different direction. What struck me as I watched both using technology at the same time, was that the technology can be as much of a barrier as it is a benefit. The blind man using the technology to navigate his sightless world. The kid using technology to avoid the world that he has every ability to experience. It was
interesting to watch, but I found that I was angry and sad at the same time. Angry at the kid for not interacting appropriately to the Southwest employee. Angry at the woman with the kid for allowing that to happen, and angry that the blind man would probably trade all the technology to be able to see. I was also sad, sad that the kid probably didn’t realize what he was doing, he’s never known life without cell phones or technology. Sad that the woman with him allowed him to ignore the employee (until she heard me say something). And, sad knowing that the blind man’s sight would never be as good as the kid’s, while the kid may never really appreciate the fact that he has every opportunity to experience his own sight, other than viewing something on a video screen.
As I thought about this on the flight, looking out the window in hopes of spotting Half-Dome in Yosemite, I couldn’t help
but consider that we as people need to be careful of how we continue to develop technology to serve people. We can either create technology that enhances the human senses and experience, or we can create technology that becomes barriers to human senses and experiences.
It seems metaphorical to me now a few days later, with the airport representing human travel through life, the blind man representing our trust in technology to help us accomplish our goals, and the kid representing the barriers and indifference to human interaction and preference to technology rather than other humans. And it seems that we are at the point of needing to decide. We have a choice, do we become the blind man, or the kid as we continue our travel through life?
About the Author: Dr. Chris Fuzie is the author of "Because Why?...Understanding Behavior In Exigencies." and "S.C.O.R.E. Performance Counseling: Save the Relationship, Change the Behavior," and Owner of CMF Leadership Consulting. Chris is a developer/trainer/consultant for leadership of public, private, profit, and non-profit organizations. Chris holds a Doctorate of Education (Ed.D), M.A. and B.A. in Organizational Leadership, and has graduate certificates in Human Resources and Criminal Justice Education. Chris is honorably retired from the Modesto Police Department after 28 years of public service where he last served as the Assistant Division Commander of Investigations.