Airlines, Apple and More Corporations are Pitting Us Against Each Other

The Great Airplane Seat Recliner Wars of 2014 have now caused at least three flights to be diverted, following passenger altercations, while providing much-needed ammunition for professional opinion-havers on the internet. Is it acceptable to use a Knee Defender to prevent the person in front of you from reclining, or monstrous? Should you pay me if you don't want me to recline, or is it "simple decency towards your fellow humans" to refrain to spread out? Is reclining a right or a privilege?

To this professional opinion-haver, though, the debate has become immensely frustrating, because the answer is that we shouldn't need to be having the debate at all. There is no right answer because there simply isn't enough space on airplanes; it's perfectly reasonable to want to claim a bit more room by reclining, and perfectly reasonable to object to someone else reducing yours. What's not reasonable is the number of seats crammed into the plane. (Onion headline: United Airlines Exploring Viability Of Stacking Them Like Cordwood.)

We can argue over who or what is responsible: greedy airlines; all of us, for wanting cheap air travel; the logic of capitalism. But seeking a solution to the Knee Defender dilemma is like asking whether you'd rather ride on planes that were piloted exclusively by chipmunks or by Shetland ponies. The moment you agree to the terms of the argument, you've lost.

There are striking parallels here to the voluminous discussions following this week's release of hacked nude photographs of Jennifer Lawrence and other celebrities. The parallels aren't exact, since in the case of the photos, there's a correct answer about who's in the right. People – even very famous ones – should be able to expect that their private photos will remain private, while the hackers who dedicate endless hours to violating that privacy are deeply unpleasant individuals. Even so, the truest answer to the question "should Jennifer Lawrence have known better?" is that the question should never have arisen in the first place. Apple's terrible security shouldn't have been terrible. We probably can't eliminate the phenomenon of lecherous people with time on their hands, but there's no need to make it so easy for them.

As Taylor Hatmaker explains at The Daily Dot, Apple has been taking alarmingly extensive measures to prevent its users from signing up for more effective, optional security measures. My only disagreement with Hatmaker is her argument that Apple's policy "def[ies] all logic". Does it really? Apple's business model depends on users making a constant stream of online purchases; measures like two-factor authentication risk seriously slowing that process. Is it so inexplicable that Apple might favor seamless spending over security?

There's a pattern here: time and again, we get embroiled in arguments about how people ought to behave, when we should pay more attention to the environments – structured by the consumer economy – in which they behave. Remember back in July (it seems an aeon ago) when the technology journalist Ryan Block posted a recording of a Comcast representative trying to bully him into not disconnecting his service? As Block noted at the time, the real problem wasn't the representative's personality; it was a corporate structure in which such desperate behavior might seem to make sense:

Ryan Block: "3/ It belies a dysfunctional system that pits call center reps + customers against one other for the benefit of the company."

This needn't be an us-versus-them, anti-business sort of argument. Apple's poor security isn't necessarily the result of a conscious evil plan. Comcast, and especially the historically unprofitable airline industry, could very well argue we're all complicit, benefiting from the cheaper services their society-corroding practices permit. (Would you really pay a significant premium for a cable service with good customer service?) But if we're going to have these arguments, let's at least approach them in a clear-eyed manner. There's an underlying logic here – the logic of the profit-focused, all-private-sector, cheap-stuff-and-low-pay economy we've created. And we shouldn't let ourselves get distracted from it.


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