The take-off and landing mantra--"At this time please turn off all electronic devices and return your seat backs and tray tables to their full upright positions"--is as familiar to fliers as the Miranda warning is to criminals and fans of "Law and Order." But when Amazon brought out its Kindle ebook reader in 2007, one prescient blogger warned that the traditional formula would soon change: "'Please turn off your book for takeoff' is going to be a real wake-up call for early adopters who think they don't need to carry a book anymore," a sentiment that was echoed in a New Yorker cartoon last Spring. Readers of conventional books thought they were sitting pretty, that they could read on a plane anytime they wanted. But it turns out that flying books can be dangerous too.
First the Transportation Safety Administration banned reading during the final hour of international flights, to prevent terrorists from reading verses in their Korans. (When the TSA learned that Islam forbids the destruction of the Koran, the ban was quietly lifted.) Now the Interweb is buzzing with unconfirmed reports that, although laptops and ebook readers are shielded to minimize electronic interference, conventional printed matter lacks such safeguards and poses a potential danger in the air. For one thing, the static discharge created by 150 passengers paging through their books or magazines may be enough to throw off a plane’s sensitive controls. And with conventional reading matter, there’s also chaos theory to worry about. If a butterfly flapping its wings somewhere over the Himalayas can cause a tornado in Topeka, imagine how the breeze generated by all that in-flight page-turning can disrupt a plane’s final descent into O’Hare.
Add to all this the patently dangerous content of much reading matter. Books have been known to cause wars and revolutions, lawsuits and fatwas, eyestrain and acute somnolence. What’s to prevent them from inciting passengers or even crew members to do something regrettable? And how is the flight crew supposed to soothe a traveler sent round the bend by the constant rustling of newspapers, a sound far worse than the crying of unhappy babies? With a packet of fat-free mini-pretzels?
Books aren't the only harmful technology. Crosswords were just about a decade old in 1925, when this item appeared in the London Times, and as with all new technologies, they presented dangers to users! They may soon be included in TSA in-flight bans as well.
So, besides stowing your tray tables and returning those useless headsets, it may not be long before the flight attendant’s message is revised yet again: “Please close all your books. Pens and pencils down. And you back there in 34F, yes you, eyes on your own pretzels! We know you have many choices when you fly. We just want to narrow some of them down a bit.”
Ward Sutton, The New Yorker, April 14, 2010