Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Human Cogs

I'm sitting in the terminal at the Pittsburgh Airport, which this morning isn't terribly crowded. I'm a fretful, infrequent traveler, so when none of the disasters I allow time for actually happen, I end up with terminal time on my hands.

Flying always reminds me of how dehumanizing systems can be. An airport is a place filled with customers who are at times actually treated like barely tolerable nuisances. There is a system at work here, and the expectation is that humans will line up and be proper cogs.

People deal with that in many ways. Those required to enforce the system can put a human face on it, or show their annoyance with the cogs that won't behave or simply aren't familiar with their coggy roles. Not knowing what you're supposed to do is one of the great unpardonable.

Pittsburgh has, in my experience, one of the nicer groups of TSA agents. But then, I'm a reasonably uninteresting looking middle aged white guy. Most of the people I encounter in an airport, from airline workers to food sellers, treat me reasonably well. Plus, as a teacher, I'm pretty good at adapting to the rhythm of a place built on rules. I can see that brown and black guys, particularly middle-easterny looking brown guys, don't always get the same kind treatment, and it's fascinating to me that systems supposedly built on treating people like identical cogs can very easily incorporate systemic nuances and tricks for treating cogs very differently.

I can also see the effects on the cogs. While some people can adapt a friendly open approach, or strike up a connection with a travel buddy, mostly traveling seems to foster the same warmth and community as a busy Manhattan sidewalk. People are tense anyway, particularly those who don't travel often, and air travel fosters an atmosphere of scarcity. I've taken to traveling with a checked bag and only my personal backpack to carry on, because not having to compete for overhead bin space reduces my boarding stress by 1000%. There's not enough space, enough time, enough kindness, enough slack to go around, and contrary to some free-market fans, the competition does not bring out the best in people.

I have had many pleasant travel experiences, and I read that great piece about coming together at an airport terminal (I would link to it, but I'm on a tablet right now and it's just not going to happen), and I completely believe it. There are certain moments when. People insist on asserting their humanity in the face of the machine, and you can't assert your humanity without recognizing the humanity of the people around you.

I have no complaints, sitting here. This kind of travel reminds me how many of my "problems" are first world problems. I'm fortunate that I have a demeanor, background, and skin color that make these sorts of adventures pretty free and easy.

But airport terminals always remind me what a fine line separates an institutional system that supports and serves people from one that grinds them down and beats them up. It is such a little thing--a kind word, a recognition of shared humanity, a piece of public art, a valuing of the needs of humans over the "needs" of the system.

I think about all of this in particular because I'm headed to Seattle to meet my first grandson who is only about seventeen days old and not very interested in the deeper philosophical underpinnings of human systems, but will one day have to deal with whatever we have built for his generation.

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