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23 April 2015

At 30,000 feet, there is no privacy. The seat-back screen is a window into the soul of the person in front

 “One rerun – it was one rerun of Friends! You can’t prove I’m thinking about it all the time!”

By Will Self

I never watch movies or TV or play video games on planes. Why? Because those fag-packet-sized screens that they implant in the back of the seats are actually displaying the thoughts of the person sitting in front of you. It isn’t seemly to intrude on another’s thoughts – we’ve all read our Freud and we know that beneath the thin, smooth veneer of socially sanctioned self-awareness (I am an upright, decent, sincere, moral person . . .), there seethes a fetid-fiery pit of the libidinal imagination into which barrels of death instinct are regularly poured. How else can we explain what is plainly in view – a heaving morass of tortured and ecstatic and self-regarding flesh which is hardly ethically minimised by appearing in miniature?

I realise that some of you may find the notion far-fetched: surely even if the technology existed, it would be impossible to implant the necessary sensors in our brains while we were blissfully unaware. But the evidence is compelling. In the past, I often used to while away 155 minutes observing, say, Gladiator, and when I asked the people in front of me whether they’d been thinking about sweaty men hacking each other to death they replied they most certainly had.

But it was only some years after the fag-packet-sized screens began to be installed on planes that I tumbled to exactly what was going on. Heading for the lavatory on a transatlantic flight, I turned back to see that the serried ranks of passengers were absolutely fixated on their fellows’ mental content. Moreover, that mental content was almost invariably the same: in this case, footage of a desert full of burning oil refineries. I stood there, stunned not by the evidence of groupthink (for this was readily explained by the cascade effect of each person’s thoughts being transmitted to the one behind) but by the insouciance they all displayed, munching away on their poached salmon with green beans and dauphinoise potatoes without any shame.

It was then that I cracked a little and began going from seat to seat, challenging their inhabitants: “How does it feel to know you’re being psychically violated even as you rifle another’s brainbox?” And I would have continued, had the woman in the seat behind me not sprung up, crying, “Get back here – I was halfway through an episode of Friends you once saw and were thinking about!” This made me feel, in turn, ambivalent: on the one hand I was pleased not to have been cogitating about the burning oil refineries in common with the herd, but on the other I was depressed to realise that my subconscious seethed with little else but perma-tanned American comedy actors fired up by a high-octane laughter track. I couldn’t deny that I had seen this particular episode of Friends; after all, quite a few others on the plane had, too, and the evidence was directly before us.

So now I never look at anything displayed on those screens – I have no need to know that the inoffensive woman sitting in front of me is sexually fixated on Zeinab Badawi. When I fly accompanied by my wife or one of my children, they labour to convince me that the control unit you can detach from its housing beside the screen enables you to “change channels” and this disproves my belief. Even if I were to accept something so unlikely, it wouldn’t make me feel any better, because if I am in control of what’s appearing on the screen, it could well be that I’m also controlling my hapless travel companions’ thoughts, rapidly spooling them through a frightening series of visions – sweaty men hacking each other to death, burning oil refineries, perma-tanned hilarity addicts – until they collapse into catatonic psychosis.

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Since I discovered this alarming instance of technologically mediated mass privacy invasion, I’ve happened on more and more. Apparently millions upon millions of ordinary people spend considerable amounts of time every day exposing intimate aspects of themselves to whoever’s interested – spiritual beliefs, sexual preferences, bank balance. Nothing seems sacred any more. Why, the other day, I ordered a triple-shot skinny macchiato in Costa and the barista, without so much as a by-your-leave, asked me what my name was! Slobbering with indignation, I told this fellow it was a free country and I wouldn’t even be under any legal obligation to supply him with such information if he were an officer of the law. He replied that that was all very well, but it’d make it a hell of a lot easier to ensure he made me the right coffee if I could at least give him a capital letter to felt-tip on the cup.

I gave him an “M” – a teasing come-on to GCHQ and the NSA, should they be watching – but when he handed me my beverage, the barista laughed dryly and remarked, “I don’t know why you make such a big deal about your privacy. Everyone knows your innermost thoughts consist of little else but endless reruns of Friends.” I shouted at him: “One rerun – it was one rerun of Friends! You can’t prove I’m thinking about it all the time!” But he didn’t pay me any heed. He was bantering with the next customer about their thoughts; or, still more sinisterly, telling them what to think.

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