29 Feb 2012

Untouchable

"Why don't you just download the app?", asked my friend. It was late last Saturday night, and we had just entered another art gallery participating in Montréal's Nuit Blanche. On display was a rather underwhelming video installation of a man in a sewer. That was, however, merely the most obvious part of the project. As it turns out, the display was linked to a virtual reality environment, which allowed you to wander through the tunnels yourself - on your smartphone. Or at least this is what I understood from my friend, before she plugged in her headset and started wandering the snow-covered streets of the old port, believing to be in the sewers underneath.

This is the same friend, by the way, who had tought her phone's voice assistant to refer to me as "her husband". Fortunately, her boyfriend was in on the prank, and I was touched by the gesture. My phone, however, was not.

In fact, it hardly saw any use that long white night, unlike its much smarter siblings. Be it at the dinner table, directing us from one venue to the next, or updating the social network as we went along, the fruit-branded devices were always at my friends' fingertips.

And if they were not, then they sat there on the table, putting the entire world within an arm's reach. Exactly as they do in any meeting I attend at work these days. Whether it is in an attempt to be more efficient, or just to emulate corporate bigwigs, colleagues across all levels seem to have gotten their hands on a smartphone. An IT guideline on how to connect private devices to our corporate mail servers has recently been sent out - to my PC, that is. I took a hands-off approach.

Not that the benefits completely slip from my hands. On my recent trip, my wingman usually activated his device in the split-second between our plane's main and its forward landing gear touching the ground. By the time we reached our gate, he had published his location on Facebook, checked our connecting flight information, messaged back home, and searched for recommended food outlets. I, on the other hand, was contemplating if it was even worth keying in the PIN code to activate my phone for the short time we were there.

When I got my first handy, over 15 years ago, my friends laughed at me. Who would ever need such a clunky contraption? What was wrong with a payphone? Today, they point their fingers at me - and then at the screens of their pocket-knowitalls. Thinking, navigating, socializing, playing, it all happens with a gentle touch. And rumor has it they can still make calls, too. The marketeer in me rejoices over data trails as rich and as personalized as these. But personally, I have so far remained unimpressed. Will I be able to resist for much longer? I keep my fingers crossed.

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11 Feb 2012

Airworld

They must just consider me a harmless nutcase by now. The US immigration officer at the border between Vancouver and Seattle eventually just shook his head and let me in, after I explained to him that I had travelled all the way to the west coast, and was now on a bus from the Canadian city's airport to the one at its American neighbor, simply to fly back and forth across the continent again. And no, I would not do this on my own but with a friend whom I'd met in a London pub ten years ago, and kept in touch with ever since. "And you do all of this just for the miles?" he asked, incredulously.

So here I am now, high above the appropriately named fly-over-country of middle America, jetting into the first of many sunsets. I have time to contemplate if those frequent flyer miles are really the sole incentive behind this, and previous, jaunts. Certainly, from both a personal and a professional point of view, I can attest to the potency of rewards currencies. Redeeming miles for flights in Business or First class, on industry-leading airlines, to exotic destinations is a very addictive habit, and knowing how to successfully hunt for these elusive free seats takes away the potential for frustration.

Even more importantly, frequent flyer programs extend to their most loyal customers (or should they be called largest victims?) the privileges of Elite status. And once you've become used to perks such as lounge access, security fast track. reservations for the seats with the extra legroom and, in North America, not having to pay for checked bags, you will never want to go back. It is not for nothing that road warriors proudly dangle their program's "mine-is-bigger" baggage tags from their trolleys. It is the angst of loosing status, as much as jet fuel, that propells me through the skies in this quest for 35'000 miles in three days. "I have to defend my status!", a German friend once proclaimed.

An even bigger privilege than Elite status, however, is to have a trusted wingman by your side. In sharing the tension of running for connecting flights, the misery of cheap microwaved pasta served at 35'000 feet, the pain of over-euphemized announcements (why say turbulence when you can say "rough air"?), these unavoidable aspects of Airworld become bearable. Knowing that you're not the only person crazy enough to do what you do creates a sense of normality, and gives you somebody to share memories with. And when that shiny new Gold / Platinum / Diamond card arrives in the mail, you know that at least someone out there will be able to appreciate what it took to get it.

Most importantly, as you sit back in your seat, watch the setting sun turn the clouds below a warm red, and order another Campari Soda, there is somebody to talk to. Or, as 10 million miler Ryan Bingham puts it in Up in the Air: "To know me is to fly with me."

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