Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Wednesday 21/9/2005More aviation fun — this time from BMI, which has said it will install mobile phone access technology so people can use their mobiles in flight. It's traditional at this point to complain about the miserable idea of getting stuck for five hours next to someone with radioactive logorrhea, but to be frank it's not going to make the misery of economy travel any worse.

Wednesday 21/9/2005

More aviation fun — this time from BMI, which has said it will install mobile phone access technology so people can use their mobiles in flight. It's traditional at this point to complain about the miserable idea of getting stuck for five hours next to someone with radioactive logorrhea, but to be frank it's not going to make the misery of economy travel any worse. Stick on the headphones, knock back the sleeping draft and just ignore the idiots.

But there are other implications. Today saw something unique happen, a genuine first: a JetBlue plane with landing gear problems had to land (as they all do, one way or the other) at Los Angeles after spending a few hours circling to burn off excess fuel. Nothing too unusual in that, nor in the fleet of news crews on the ground and in the air that assembled to watch it make it in. With nine news helicopters in the air over the city most of the time, you can't get so much as a blocked lavatory on approach and hope to avoid the nightly news.

What made this different was that the in-flight entertainment on the plane included live TV from the DirecTV satellite service. As the story broke and unfolded, the passengers in the plane could watch the reports — they were simultaneously passive observers and active participants. And even when the crew turned off the TV before the landing attempt, passengers in other JetBlue flights coming into LAX could see the whole thing. It's as if the inhabitants of the Big Brother house could spend their evenings watching Big Brother, or everyone in Ambridge discovered the Archers, only with considerably more potential for an horrific climax.

This is the sort of thing that makes cultural theorists explode in delight and fans of Philip K Dick nod sagely and mutter that we told you so. It's certainly impossible to imagine whether watching your own potential tragedy unfold on TV in real time makes it feel even more immediate, or whether it provides some insulation from having to contemplate it all directly. Expect long articles in serious newspapers on this point: don't expect any answers.

But it's going to get worse. Imagine something happening on a mobile phone enabled plane. You won't need live TV on the seat back system, you'll be able to stream it in over the Net — and the bloke next to you will be able to send pictures out by the same route. The media is already keenly aware that people with camera phones can generate footage from anywhere — it knows where to look.

Reality is becoming self-documenting, and the maps are being the places they describe. I'd stock up on the Philip K Dick, if I were you.