The human moment and working collaboratively online

I keep hearing people say things like this, including myself lately:

“We do our best work when we’re physically connected,” says Roy Hirshland, CEO of T3 Advisors, a commercial real estate advisor. Dialing in on Skype will work in a pinch, but it’s not a substitute, he says. “When you’re in the same room, you can see facial expressions, you can feel energy in a room.”

The idea is based on Media Richness Theory, which posits that some tasks require face-to-face interaction. Skype doesn’t fit the bill. “Skype is a great, free way to communicate with sound and picture, but with glitchy connections, awkward camera angles, the limitations of webcams and cheap microphones, etc.,” says Dr. Matthew Lombard, a professor at Temple University and president of the International Society for Presence Research. “It’s far from the same experience as talking to someone in person. Face-Time and other tablet and phone methods have the advantage of mobility, but they suffer in terms of the vividness of the experience.”

This is a quote from this article about telecommuting, a word I never even use despite being apparently one of the only 2.6% of people in the US who consider themselves full-time at-home workers.

I think it’s true to an extent, and the cutoff of whether it’s true for you is literally how much of your life has been lived online so far. How could someone who didn’t even have desktop computers as a reality when they were growing up imagine people only using them to have the same experiences they’re so used to being defined as in-person only? Of course these people don’t believe internet experiences are real enough, because they simply can’t conceive of it.

If you’re reading my blog though, I bet you’ve been interacting online with people from such a young age that you don’t even realize the extent to which you’re getting valuable human contact online that you’re dismissing as self-centered or useless simply because you’re staring at your phone or tablet to receive it.

Real things happen online. Really real things between really real people. You totally need in-person time to make new experiences that simply can’t happen online (and yes, I do believe there are some obviously, just not quite at the level discussed above), but dismissing online-only experiences as somehow less valuable or less productive or less human is something that can only be done by someone who can’t have those experiences to that level because their own growth and development as a human didn’t include this kind of communication transfer as a way of interacting with humanity. Computers are “other” and humans are “real” and for some people, this can never be made untrue.

I am never flying United again.

So we’ve all been there. We all know that the airline industry is full of criminals and idiots, but what happened to me today was by far the most insulting thing I’ve ever endured directly from airline staff.

It’s 70 degrees in Denver today, and it was 70 degrees in Santa Cruz when I left. Reasonable clothes for such weather would look a lot like what I was wearing: flip flops, shorts and an awesome is_automattician() t-shirt. Now, admittedly, flip flops were a poor choice, but traveling today sounded awful anyway so taking my shoes off at the airport just didn’t really seem like an appealing option.

Upon reaching the plane, I started to worry it was going to be too cold for me since I had dressed so lightly. I sat down, put my stuff away and settled in. Since we weren’t moving, I was warm enough and my worries of being too cold subsided. I even turned on my air after a bit.

As is the case most of the time, when we started moving to take off, the A/C kicked on again, this time full-force. After a few minutes of climbing to our cruising altitude, I rang the flight attendant when I was able because I’d quickly lost warmth and was now worried about the short 1-hour flight from SFO to LAX (I have no idea why I had a layover in LA but whatever).

I had crossed my arms tightly over my chest and it would have been clear to anyone that I was cold. In fact, the flight attendant himself made a crossed arms gesture and inquired as to my warmth, to which I responded that I was freezing. I didn’t really hear his response and since he immediately walked past my seat, I started to try to piece together the syllables I’d heard him say into something having to do with warming me up. I convinced myself he was going to maybe turn the A/C down a bit and bring me a blanket?

How wrong I was.

You see, United only offers blankets to first-class passengers. I’m going to type that again, and in bold this time:

United Airlines only offers blankets to those passengers who have paid an exorbitant price to fly from SFO to LAX in the First Class cabin. I’d learn this later.

Now, United is free to do whatever it wants, business-wise. It’s pretty clear that it does, often relegating us Economy and Economy Plus passengers to the status of in-flight prisoners. Now we aren’t even afforded the comfort of a blanket when the plane is fucking 60 degrees. But I digress.

It surprised me to notice that the same flight attendant who’d responded to my little bell ring was now pulling the beverage cart to the front of the lowly Economy cabin passengers. Since I was in Economy Plus, I was asked first what drink I’d like. Perplexed by the lack of action on his part regarding my comfort, I once again inquired about a blanket and was even more perplexed by his response which was simply “We don’t have blankets.”

“We don’t have blankets.”

What? Your plane’s A/C is about to frost over my glasses and you don’t offer fucking blankets? Frontier Airlines tried to charge me $1.99 for a Coke the last time I flew them and now United’s telling me they don’t having motherfucking blankets. At any price.

Alright, fuck it. It’s gonna be a cold flight but I can manage, I think. Pretty soon though, I needed to use the restroom. It occurred to me as I got out of my seat that it might be warmer in the restroom but it wasn’t my primary goal. Upon entering, a warm flow of air buffeted me as I immediately made the decision to stay in the bathroom for the remaining duration of the flight. Fuck these United people, I thought.

I obviously didn’t intend to camp out in the bathroom for the entirety of the flight, no matter how short. But okay, I sat there fully clothed for a good 10 or 15 minutes (not an unreasonable amount of time to spend in the restroom, I’d wager) until I could feel my fingers and nose again. I stood up to check my hair before heading back to my seat (I am a vain, vain man), and in the process was interrupted by someone sliding open the lock to the restroom from the outside.

The door opened a crack, I made some kind of exclamation I’m sure, and the mysterious figure opening the door said “oh” and quickly shut it again. Feeling furious and violated, I slammed the lock back home. My heart was racing while I tried to figure out what just happened and since I was about to leave anyway, I started to go back to my seat.

I scowled my way halfway back to my seat and abruptly turned around. It’d just occurred to me that the flight attendant had opened the bathroom door, not another passenger. Confused and livid, I marched back to the front of the plane and asked the only person present if she’d been the one opening my door from the outside. She said that yes, she was, and that she was making sure there was someone in there.

I hope you’re making the face I’m making at that statement because it just makes no fucking sense whatsoever.

Furious, I told her never to do that again. She told me I needed to use the back restroom for the rest of the flight. Like an indignant child, I told her no.

I’m not proud of that last bit but fuck it. You cannot simply:

  1. Set the A/C of your plane in October to below 70 degrees. This plane was easily below 65.
  2. Tell Economy passengers that you don’t even have blankets, when the problem agent who greets me at the gate is going to tell me they’re reserved for First Class passengers.
  3. Open the motherfucking bathroom door because you’re fucking curious as to why it’s locked.
  4. Be completely unapologetic and cold when you’ve just violated someone’s privacy at your place of business, which is in the sky.

So this whole thing has done a great job of showing me to the nth degree just how bad United’s customer service is. They have systematically installed a customer-hostile culture that repeatedly stomps on your rights as a passenger, a customer, and a human.

I’ve said it before and I’m saying it again: airlines are run by criminals.
Flickr Photo by iambents

Swiss Air

We’ve all been there

I’m sorry, this bag is too big or heavy to fit in our overhead compartment, we’ll need to gate check it

To which of course any reasonable traveler responds

Like fuck you are

And then of course the airline wins anyway because that’s how the world works. Usually following this gate-check extravaganza come broken luggage handles, damage to the frame and wheels, scuff marks, late delivery, your bag put on the wrong plane and on and on ad infinitum. These things have all happened to me, most of them in the past couple years. I no longer trust airlines with my bags.