Earlier this summer, I was travelling back from Moscow, and as I boarded the plane I was happy to see that the backs of the seats were fitted with personal entertainment screens. On the way out, they had been churlishly smooth. I settled down, thinking those tired old thoughts about mid-air disasters, and noticed that there was an identical broadcast playing on each of them. For a moment, I imagined that it was a slow-moving advert for Sheremetyevo Airport, but the carelessness of the composition – the half-view of a truck with its indicators blinking, the artless strip of grass and the puddled tarmac, rippling with the same rain that was hitting the plane’s windows – soon made it clear that this runway was our runway, brought to us live. I had never been on a plane that transmitted a real-time feed of taxiing and take-off, but I have since been informed that this is not a whim, or anything particular to Aeroflot.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. The decision to strap a camera on to the plane’s snout and stream its footage in the cabin is in line with one of the core values of our digitised age: if something can be seen, we will want to see it. Life, as much as possible, should be recorded visually.
Indeed, the little screen neatly frames our contemporary attitudes to the moving image. In the language of Twitter hashtags, we are invited to “get involved” with the pilot’s business of pulling us away from Earth. Moreover, the personalising of our in-flight entertainment reflects our era’s peculiar capacity for solipsism in the most public of spaces. We all know that mid-flight vista down the cabin from the haphazard queue for the toilets, showing a glowing mosaic of individual taste: Meryl Streep’s effusive glare sandwiched between Kung Fu Panda and an episode of Arrested Development. This is the definition of the postmodern, fragmented audience, united only by its dusty grazing on hypoallergenic pretzels.
When we were finally allowed to watch something other than our ascent into the pearly evening sunshine, I jabbed my way through the lethargic menu, looking for something I had already seen. When I am airborne, my digital appetite for real-time updates and notifications disappears – for the jittery flyer, eventfulness is the enemy. The past is safe. And so I decided to rewatch Carol, a film about a lesbian romance between a middle-aged woman of the same name (played by Cate Blanchett) and a younger photographer (Rooney Mara).
Sitting next to me was a girl of about 12. She was pale and self-sufficient, quietly reading a Dan Brown book. I thought that the woman beside her might be her mother, but eventually I realised that the girl was a lone traveller, perhaps a regular on this Sunday-night flight back to London.
Time passed. In the movie, the women were on a clandestine road trip, bringing New York glamour to small-town motel rooms. I remembered that a night of passion was imminent. I glanced at my young neighbour, who was turning her book around on her knees, following with her finger a piece of text written in a swirl. I wondered if the sexiness in Carol would have been edited out. I certainly couldn’t count on it. On a flight back from the US a few years ago, I witnessed an Orthodox Jewish teenager looking on with blatant interest at the orgies in The Wolf of Wall Street, erupting from the seat diagonally in front of him.
The practice of protecting immature eyes from mature films has seemingly been abandoned in the lawless skies. This laissez-faire approach makes sense only if we suppose that a personal screen produces around us a sort of impermeable membrane. As with other aspects of our digital etiquette, the prevailing assumption is that when we gaze into a screen we hit pause on public life – with its notions of civic responsibility and propriety.
I began to worry about the girl beside me, my unofficial ward. What would she think of the man next to her, sitting bolt upright and studying, with a traveller’s blank expression, the tasteful sapphic scene unfolding a foot away from his face? I felt morally obliged to censor my choice, but at the same time I was politically interested to see whether Russia’s national airline would have already censored a homosexual tryst on my behalf.
Things heated up more quickly than I recalled and, with the inevitability of a parent passing by the living room at the raciest moment in a film, the flight attendant Daria wheeled into view just as Carol was solemnly unveiling her girlfriend’s breasts.
“Lamb with couscous or chicken with rice?” she said.
Carol’s back was smooth and lovely in the dimly lit motel room.
The girl looked across me to consider her choice, and there we all were – her, me, Daria, Cate and Rooney – in the huddle particular to our class. I took out my earbuds, as a way of distancing myself from the canoodling. While making a show of clearing room for the steaming chicken, I casually pressed my thumb to the screen, lurching the lovers forward and landing them plonk in the morning after. The girl was busy peeling open her lamb with couscous. Daria had moved on.
The remainder of Carol conducted itself with impeccable, 12-certificate modesty. I had just started to watch The Hours – how our choices are a camera into our souls – when the film was curtly replaced with the latest view from the cockpit. It was like the opening of EastEnders in reverse: down through the fluttering murk of clouds we went, London, the Thames, all getting bigger. The runway appeared as I had never seen it before. Lights arranged in an arrow guided us out of the night. I wanted to spare myself this vision but knew it would be pointless to switch off my screen alone. Up and down the rows, the ground was flying into our eyes, a repeating tile pattern of our destinies.
As we bumped on to Earth, our speed draining away, I looked sideways at my young neighbour, wondering if I could detect any new signs of worldliness. But she had already taken off inside her phone, perhaps keen to see what views she had missed out on while coursing through the sky.
“The Four-Dimensional Human: Ways of Being in the Digital World” by Laurence Scott is published by William Heinemann
This article appears in the 24 Aug 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser