“Self”-sorting

Another air travel experience: in the United Airlines terminal of Newark Airport, most of the fast-food dining options have been replaced with faux-fancy restaurants, and in front of every single seat, like on many airplanes, there is a tablet screen so that every diner may consume media entertainment in addition to food and drink. Hardly anyone uses these screens because most people have their own screens in their hands. But in this world of “choice” the on-table tablets cannot be tucked away, so while walking by I was seeing double: two screens per person.

In addition, this terminal features one gate in which every single seat in the waiting area similarly has a tablet. This unique gate appears as if it might be an exclusive perk for club members or high-class passengers, but upon closer inspection seems to be open to any passenger. Unlike the tablets at dining establishments, some of these screens were actually in use.

As I absorbed this novelty, another traveler approached me, who not incidentally was black and for whom English was not a first language. “Excuse me, my friend,” he said. He gestured toward the gate full of screens and asked, “Can anybody sit there and use the computers?”

“I think so,” I replied. He looked again at the gate. Even the seats themselves were newer, cleaner, brighter than the drab navy blue seats at other gates. He smiled a big anxious smile and said, “I don’t think I will take the risk. Thank you.”

He walked away to an adjacent gate with dirty seats and no screens, but less risk – of what exactly I cannot say for sure, but I imagine that he was imagining a Kafkaesque nightmare could ensue if he was found where he should not be. He sat down facing the high-tech gate, perhaps because his flight would be departing from there eventually. I looked more carefully at the people using the screens at this gate and observed each person appeared to be white or East Asian. I looked at the people sitting at other gates and observed many black and brown faces.

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