Monday 28 July 2014

Seatback Entertainment: Progress or Stultification?

By Adam Hincks, S.J.

The medium is the massage. – Marshall McLuhan

I have always enjoyed flying, which is a blessing given that my current position involves a fair amount of travel. Apart from the security lines, I profit from the down-time in the lounge, I enjoy looking out the window of the aeroplane, and I actually like the little meals they bring right to your seat as though you were an astronaut. Finally, I appreciate the opportunity to watch films. A large fraction of the movies I see are at ten thousand metres off the ground.

Today it is common for planes to have on-demand, seatback entertainment, with access to dozens of films and television shows. It is a big leap from the overhead screens showing a single video to the whole plane, for which one would often have to crane one’s neck or squint to see the distant monitor. But even if the technology has progressed, I have recently been more aware of how different media shape me, and I am not sure that I prefer the seatback movie to the common, overhead movie. Certainly the new situation is easier on the eyes (and neck) and gives an actual choice in terms of content and when one watches. Nevertheless, there are a few aspects of seat-back entertainment that I question, and which are not unrelated to the wider culture.

First, there is the aspect of choice. There is nothing wrong about having multiple options for what to watch, but there is also something to be said for simply accepting what is there. To start with, it means that I don’t get opportunities any more to watch plain bad films—with on-demand viewing, I never would have seen such cinematic gems as King Ralph or Blades of Glory. On a more serious note, there is something to be said for having opportunities to watch something that you wouldn’t otherwise choose. It can keep you in touch with elements of the culture you don’t normally experience, whether high- or low-brow. Further, accepting what you are presented with is more akin to how we naturally encounter reality. The world isn’t something that we choose, but is something we meet. Much of our freedom has to do with how we respond to what we meet: a lot of the time the situations and settings of our lives are beyond our control. Of course, how we respond and the choices that we make do alter the world. But fundamentally, the world is not like an on-demand video system where we can choose the stimuli that suit us in the moment. Paradoxically, insisting that reality meet our tastes may make us less free by restricting our world to the narrow confines of our own predilections. Much of the joy of life is in encountering the unexpected and learning that what we may not have otherwise chosen is in fact worth having.

Second, there is the aspect of time. With on-demand entertainment, you yourself control the starting and stopping and pausing of the film as you please. But in my experience, this does not necessarily make you more free. You begin planning the trip around how many and which films will fit into a flight of such-and-such a length; you get fidgety if the screen is not being used, even if there is beautiful scenery just through the window. Again, instead of learning to be receptive to a world that presents itself to you, you map out a world that meets your predefined desires.

Third, there is the aspect of community. Perhaps the biggest difference in personalised entertainment is that everyone is in his own little world. This is not to say that having everyone watch the same, overhead movie is an excellent way to build community, but the difference between the common and the private movie is, I think, symbolic of our increased tendency to isolate ourselves. Each person on the aeroplane has the opportunity to set up a private zone consisting of nothing beyond his seat and the screen in front of it. Having private time is healthy and is nothing new—reading a book or a magazine is very similar, after all—but it does reflect a development in visual media. Movies and television shows used to be watched in groups; now, though, it is becoming quite normal for individuals to retreat to their private rooms to watch shows online.

In the end, my thoughts about the older, over-head monitors may be more influenced by nostalgia than by a serious analysis of media. It’s not as though airlines are going to go back in time, even if that were a good thing. And I think I prefer the new technology. But reflecting on how in-flight entertainment has evolved is a good entry point into reflecting on how we engage with media, and how that shapes our perceptions of the world we live in.


  1. Another problem I have observed with individualized seatback entertainment is that some of the "content" on offer is certainly not appropriate for children, yet children can very easily see the screens around them on the aeroplane.

    1. I thought of this difficulty as well, so thanks for bringing it up. I was on a flight recently where I did not appreciate having a film on the screen next to me with frequent nudity in a sexual context.

      I also had an experience once of seeing the same film twice on one trip. On the outward journey I watched it on my private screen, and on the return trip it was on an overhead screen. The second time, the film had been ‘edited for content’ and also had had the coarse language dubbed over. I was surprised that these changes didn't detract at all from the film, and in the end actually made me enjoy the it better. Now, this is notwithstanding Marshall McLuhan's scepticism about censorship as missing the main point, i.e., the medium itself. But perhaps, on another level, this experience of the edited film using the public medium, contrasted to the unedited film using the private medium, simply underlines McLuhan's observation.