The technologies that bring us together are making me more resentful of the ones that tear us apart.
Red light cameras. Metal detectors. Running counter to the technologies of unity are the technologies of distrust. Are they necessary? Sure. And usually removed enough to be bearable. It’s when you’re forced to interact with the people handling these technologies that things get profoundly uncomfortable.
Take those new airport body scanners.
I know what you’re thinking, but this is not about the scanners’ invasiveness or safety. Those protests played out when the scanners arrived at hundreds of airports last year. That’s not to say the matter is settled; far from it. My husband sends me new articles disputing the scanners’ safety whenever he finds them, and that appears to be often. Did you know they’re banned in Europe?
Friends got on my case when the scanners first came out. They fumed, I didn’t. My only defense was the majority defense. But when I got pregnant in the fall, I caved. I promised Jason I’d opt out of the scans whenever I travel, despite the hassle. That’s how I ended up with frequent, extended stays in technology-supported ugh.
Here’s how it happens. First, I’m unlucky enough to be in the wrong line at the wrong time and am asked by a security officer to step up to the scanner instead of the metal detector. Hiding a curse, a sigh, or something worse — these are not my best moments — I let him know as warmly as I can that I need to opt out.
What happens next breaks up the predictable alienation of airport security with a dash of unpredictable alienation. The security officer tells me to wait here. No, there. The call goes out. “Female assist!” I stand barefoot as travelers who don’t have promises to keep give me sideways glances as they step in, lift their arms, collect their stuff and rush back to humanity.
Sometimes seconds pass. Usually, more than a minute. Then she appears — the poor soul who has to do this awkward thing in this awkward way because I won’t do what’s normal.
I look at her, she looks at me. I like to think that without saying anything, we both say we’re sorry.
She opens her mouth and a script comes out. Waistbands. Groin. Buttocks. Using the back of her hands. Words you’d never hear in conversation, like “inform.” She does her best to avoid eye contact. Is she really talking to me? I want to say something pithy to make her smile. “This is not my first rodeo.” It sounds stupid, so I don’t.
When she asks about any tender spots she should know about, I say my belly is sensitive because I’m pregnant, even though it hasn’t been that sensitive for weeks. It’s an experiment, I guess. Typically when I tell people I’m pregnant, they smile and say “Congratulations.” I’ve made the comment three or four times before pat downs in the last few weeks, and so far security officers have just nodded — if that — and moved on.
Her ambivalence makes sense. There’s no point to warmth in a freezer, and I can’t say I expect a different reaction. But it’d be nice if someone, someday, took the bait and followed me out of this suffocating artifice, process, procedure and legal fears be damned.
On an Alaska Airlines flight back home this weekend, the fast-talking pilot told a little joke. It was in the speech highlighting the “safety features of this aircraft,” just into the part about the oxygen masks. “If you’re sitting next to a child or someone acting like a child, put your mask on first before assisting the child.” We all snickered. Personality where there’d been only protocol. It was nice.
At security, I hold my arms out when she asks, put them down when she asks, watch travelers and security officers alike suppress their humanity for the sake of our safety, the body scanners and metal detectors watching over it all. We’re at our best when we look each other in the eye, not at an X-ray image of each other’s belongings.
I never want the private pat down. It’s the impersonal theater of this that bugs me, and I’m convinced playing our roles in private wouldn’t stop the show.
By the time the security officer’s checked her gloves for god knows what chemicals she’d have picked up from my clothes, I’m drained. Dismissed, I pull on my boots, throw my backpack over my shoulder, and pull out my phone to check Facebook, respond on Twitter, send a text, make a call, anything to recharge and reconnect with a human being. It’s easier to do that with people far away than with the people swirling all around me.
Technologies of distrust are toxic, but necessary. If we can keep our exposure to a minimum, I think we’ll all be grateful.
Mónica Guzmán is a community strategist in startups and media and a digital life columnist for GeekWire. On every day except Sunday, you can find her tweeting away at @moniguzman, subscribe to her public Facebook posts at facebook.com/moniguzman or reach her via email. See a list of her clients on her website. Also see this archive of her weekly GeekWire columns.