Bored above the clouds
A fieldnote from above the clouds (March 2013)
“Ready for Take-off!” Everyone knows these famous words of pilots confirming their preparedness for departure. Condsidering my finding on a recent flight, I would add: “Ready for boredom!” Because this is what one might experience high above the clouds…
Imagine a journey on a plane. Isn’t flying all about speed, altitude, excitement, anticipation and sometimes even turbulence? Those of us suffering from aerophobia might break out in sweat just thinking of sitting in an airplane but most of us associate flying with something exciting and positive like holidays. A few might think of work, because travelling belongs to their business. We all expect something. However, by no means do we think of boredom. Well, we should. Have a look at the rough sketch I drew after flying on a plane recently.
FIGURE 1: Flying and the Experience of Boredom
The red line shows the usual flight process of rising, remaining in altitude and descending. The green depicts peaks of experience, which can be caused by take-off, meal, landing, and in cases of flying through clouds: slight turbulence. Referring to the blue line, as you can see, the highest potential of boredom occurs in height – above the clouds, when it really should be exciting. Aerophobics know what I mean. Just think of the potential risks! Nevertheless, the insight might surprise you. So, when did it occur to me?
March 2013. On a trip to Murcia, I forgot to take the books out of my carry-on, which had already been stowed in the overhead compartment. When realizing this, it was too late to ask the person next to me to stand up again. The fasten seat belt sign was on and we were about to roll onto the runway: 2 hours and 20 min to go. Ready for take-off. Picking up speed, I enjoyed the feeling of being pushed into the seat and the plane ascended into dizzy heights. After some minutes of bird’s eye perspective, we passed through thick clouds, which blocked my view on the slowly shrinking world. Considering what to do during the remaining 2 hours and 8 minutes, I grabbed the airplane’s magazine and started looking for interesting stuff. Some special offers for frequent flyers, new skyways and the movie of the month were introduced. After skipping the shopping on board pages quickly, I ended up at the page for kids, which – to be honest – was the most interesting one. Apart from some technical details of the plane, revised in a child-friendly way, the kids’ page explained a game called “There’s no time to be bored.” ‘Of course there is no time to be bored! We are on a flight’, I thought to myself, shaking my head. When I was a kid, I was never bored during a flight. Or did I just forget about it?
Incidentally, the game was not ‘that fun’ but it inspired me to create the sketch above and made me think about the experience of boredom and its reasons. And maybe this finding saved me from being bored on my journey, too. The diagram below shows possible circumstances causing boredom during a flight. Because kids can’t really understand the time and duration of flights, they may suffer more severely from boredom.
FIGURE 2: Causes for Boredom
Nevertheless, it’s not that easy to identify the boredom-potential of flights. The part shaded in fig.1, can be labeled world of entertainment and consumption. Just taking a look at the things offered in form of “the service on board” there really shouldn’t be a second of boredom. Cineastes can watch movies, workaholics and facebookers can use the WiFi offered by some airlines, and the shopaholics can be satisfied by buying stuff they never wanted but suddenly needed. Some people may order a drink. Of course, sleeping is an option, too. If someone is used to sleeping in an upright position. And if not forgotten in the overhead compartment, you can even read a book, or listen to music. Nonetheless, boredom is just hidden by all these activities. It often shows through the shallow entertainment we are exposed to. This happens above the clouds and similarly down on earth.
To sum up, flying as a cultural technique with its services on board has reached a degree of daily experience. Considering the fast-moving times we live in, wouldn’t you agree that things becoming ordinary, quickly run the risk of becoming boring? Maybe that’s the common ground of flying and boredom, which at first sight had little in common.
I’m a cultural anthropologist based in Graz and currently doing research on the topic of boredom.
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