As I walked into the Delta Airlines Terminal at the Minneapolis Airport, I was tired. Not the kind of tired that makes you yawn and generally grumpy, I’m talking the kind of tired that makes you a flight risk to surrounding passengers. The voices in my head were taking over and were flooding the gates. I was draggin’ my carcass through the airport on my way to catch the second leg of my trip home after an incredible race weekend in Elkhart Lake Wisconsin with the RoadRace Factory / Red Bull team. On race weekends I tend to sleep only a few hours and eat 1/4 of my normal intake of gummy bears and chips, so when I entered the terminal I was shocked to hear nothing. Not even a small child screaming. At first I thought it was just because it was so late but when I came out of the restroom, I realized it was due to something else. Something sinister was afoot, and I was in awe of what I was witnessing.
Sleep hadn’t gotten its steely claws into these folks, neither had a sudden drop in oxygen. As I looked out through the packed terminal, I saw entire families, groups of high school sports teams, dudes and sisters hanging out, but not a sound. Was this the scene that I had read about in World War Z that singled the beginning of the Great Panic? I’m certainly staring at would could best be described as a terminal full of zombies.
What I was actually seeing is the newest thing in travel, a completely digital lounge. An entire airport terminal transformed into a sleek modern digital hangout that Ikea would be proud of. Each person had a table, a plug, an iPad to order service or to just stare at the soft glow of a familiar device. I dropped to my knees, lowered my head, and opened my trusty pelican case to fetch my camera. I had to capture this. I began wandering around the terminal, snapping the occasional shot, often right in some poor soul’s personal space. It was 15 minutes later that I saw the floor manager walking around. He wasn’t even coming to tell me to stop, he wanted to know if I was looking for an open table.
I was really expecting to be asked to stop, but instead I engaged him and began asking my questions. Like, “What is this place?” and “Why?” He was a great spokesman for the company that was responsible. He walked me around and showed me the different set-ups, areas of service and gave me the full explanation of how and why. I was totally impressed, but there was something I just needed to ask. “Don’t people just sit and talk to each other?” it was bothering me something terrible, that as tired as I was, I still crave the company of other miserable souls in a healthy bout shared travel induced cynicism served over a freshly poured double tall Gin and Tonic.
I’m a social being, at my core, being engaged with others helps me recharge. Sharing experiences, even briefly, I believe helps us identify ourselves as members of the same species and grounds us with common ties beyond a Facebook or Twitter status update. Seeing this lounge in action set me back. Families together but not engaged, the kids pupils fully dilated and their parents to absorbed in their own digital umbilical to notice. Couples, sitting in front of each other, but not even making eye contact, servers bringing orders and removing items not even being acknowledged. I saw the essential human interactions not dying, but long forgotten.
After about a 20 min photo-shoot with the digitally crippled, I found my salvation, the corner seat at an empty bar. I saddled up and got the bartenders name, introduced myself and asked for that needed Gin and Tonic. Joe, great man, told me I had to order through the device in front of me. To that I said, “You’re the device I’d like to order from”. We laughed, but he still had to come around and instruct me on the ordering method. Sad.. Not to be deterred I continued my conversation with Joe and soon the terminal manager showed up to ask what I was doing. I explained that I’m just floored by this terminal. Soon, the three of us were engaged in a great discussion about how we as a society are loosing touch with each other. Joe became a bartender because he enjoys people and getting to know them. This new process has begun to crush him. He spends entire shifts not saying more than, “Here you go” and his tips are way down.
After another drink the terminal manager returned to his duties and Joe and I were left to talk. A lovely family came over to sit at the bar and I immediately jumped into conversation. Cute family on their way home but needing a good distraction with their 3 year old daughter in tow. They began to pull out their devices but I couldn’t let that happen. We hit all sorts of topics, I told them what to expect with a little girl (I have one too) and soon, our little corner of the bar had become a rousing conversation with drinks flowing and people interacting. I stopped to take stock of what was happening, I realized that now the entire bar was hopping, people were leaving their tables and joining us. The area was filling up and soon Joe was overwhelmed.
By the time my flight was finally called, I hadn’t realized it had been delayed 2 hours, because in those two hours, I was captivated by this scene. I interacted with it and effectively changed the dynamic of an entire airport terminal. At no point did anyone ask me to stop shooting, most never noticed. For giggles I even pulled out the 200-400 at the bar, one person noticed and chuckled a bit. I left the terminal lounge with mixed emotions. Saddened by the initial reality of what is happening to people, but also happy that there are those who are still wanting to be a part of actual social circles that interact in ways a digital device can never replicate.
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