Ben Huh is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Cheezburger. He will be speaking at Expand NYC this November.Unidentified internet humor company founder planking during a flight.
Plenty of people travel more miles than I do, but in 2012, I spent 171 days on the road. 2013 so far? 120 days. When I started Cheezburger, I didn't expect to travel this much, but my role has increasingly become chief evangelist, recruiter and promoter.
Technology's impact on travel can be felt every step of the way, starting with weight-saving undergarments to the constellation of GPS satellites we take for granted watching over us. Everyone is used to complaining about air travel: Food is terrible (if there is any); the TSA is getting worse; seats feel smaller; we've suffered a string of computer-system-generated delays; horrific crash photos make the rounds on social media like wildfire; and airlines are charging fees, fees, everywhere.
Having traveled intensively pre- and post-9/11, the air-travel experience has actually gotten much better. Yet we live by the Louis C.K. Rule: Everything's amazing, and nobody is happy. Let me count the ways from front door to hotel door.
GPS-Enabled Ride Services
Called for a ride? The dispatch operator can't tell you where they are, but if you used Uber / Lyft / Sidecar, then you know exactly how far away they are and how much availability there is. These services are all game changers when it comes to traveling by car -- not because you can call them on your phone (you always call taxi dispatch), but because they remove uncertainty from the process. In addition, the battle for five-star ratings has caused a significant uptick in service, with almost every driver providing complimentary water, candy or, as one Lyft driver offered me, three different chargers I could use to top off my phone.
The TerribleBut knowing where your driver is at any point also creates opportunities for frustrating tweetable moments such as, "Why can't this driver move more than three blocks in 10 minutes?" (Answer: traffic.) And the all-caps: "OMG SURGE PRICING?!?!"
Real-Time Traffic Updates
Thanks to traffic-enabled maps, I can see how bad the traffic is on the way to the airport. A vast array of cameras, sensors and networks measures every highway just so we can save a few minutes on our commute. Apps like Waze even let us point out roadkill and speed traps. Crowdsource everything!
But if knowing is half the battle, I feel like we're still getting our asses kicked since there's not much you can do in most cities to get around the traffic. Unfortunately, we can't crowdsource new roads.
Speeding through TSA
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Unfortunately, this is the most uncertain and black-boxed part of air travel. "PreCheck," you say, you clever road warrior? Even if you are enrolled in TSA's PreCheck program (which lets you speed through a private TSA line without having to remove your shoes, jacket or laptop) you're actually not guaranteed safe passage. Welcome to the intentional unpredictability of security -- apparently, it's a feature, not a bug.
Mobile Flight Alerts
Airline departure times are notoriously opaque, but airlines offered SMS-based flight-status updates well before the smartphone. Apps like FlightTrack allow you to see in stunning detail the location of any flight and services like TripIt help keep all those flights organized and auto-updated.
It's just like traffic data: There's not much you can do with the info. Usually, I won't be notified that my flight is delayed until I have already left for the airport, since in most cases, airlines don't announce a delay until they're absolutely certain there are no other options. And in extreme cases when Mother Nature intervenes to make your travel impossible, you have to drive from NY to Columbus, Ohio, just to fly home to Seattle.
Call the airline to get the flight number of the incoming plane that will become your flight. While your flight status will likely still show "on-time," your departure time is dependent on the plane, and if they're running late, so will you. Caveat: This method is less reliable in hubs where the airline can swap in another plane.
Tablets and E-readers
What's obvious today wasn't so obvious 10 years ago. During the early 2000s, airlines spent hundreds of millions of dollars equipping every seat with entertainment systems. Walk through a plane during flight and you'll see almost everyone using a tablet, laptop or smartphone to entertain themselves. Flyers are not beholden to the options on the plane -- not with a vast array of music, movies, TV shows and books on their tablets and phones.
But being forced to turn off our devices during takeoff and landing feels like being sent to detention -- just ask Alec Baldwin. Just a few years ago, in the early days of the Kindle, I remember trying to explain to a very annoyed flight attendant that my Kindle was actually off, even though: "Sir, I can clearly see that there's, um, stuff on the screen." In fact, the FAA is considering letting passengers use their electronics through the entire flight due to popular demand. Now, we can officially shoot videos like this.
I admit: I have them too, but this is actually not a real improvement. In-ear buds with soft flanges do a much better job for far less money and take up less space. It's just that every business traveler apparently has to have a giant Bose headset. Kudos, Mr. Bose. May you rest in peace.
No amount of Bose technology will cancel out the fact that children have powerful legs and can scream like GWAR on steroids. I once had a child kick my chair so hard, my drink ended up in the row in front of me. Airlines appear to have special seating algorithms to strategically place babies in order to maximize the number of people annoyed by the screaming, crying and kicking.
WiFi on Planes
I remember the first time I was on a WiFi-connected flight; I felt human again. Back then, the connection was fast and liberating. I even remember doing a live Google Hangout with an engineer from the Hangout team. Unlimited kitten photos from 35,000 feet in the air while traveling at 80 percent of the speed of sound! AMAZING!
Popularity is its Achilles' heel. There are just too many of us using the connections now as it's increasingly become something we depend on to get through the flight. How am I supposed to get my work done if I can't screen the funniest of push-up bra commercials? (It's technically my job.)
Never, ever rely on being able to download your presentation from Dropbox during a flight so you can make edits right after you land. Ever.
All-Flight Battery Life
A standard 13-inch MacBook Air offers 12-plus hours of battery life. There are fewer than 100 commercial air routes in the world where you'll need more battery life. A Kindle Paperwhite: 20-plus hours. There's not a single commercial flight on the planet where you'll run down a full charge on a new Kindle Paperwhite. I actually tested this by trying to run down the battery on my Kindle by setting it to max brightness on the world's third-longest flight (from Vancouver, BC, to Sydney, Australia). Spoiler:
Kindle: 1, Ben: 0.
The TerribleYou've probably watched everything and forgot to download that book you really wanted to read. And 20 straight hours of Kindle reading will make you want to claw out your eyes from the fatigue.
RFID-enabled Hotel Keys
RFID chips eliminate the all-too-common problem of "my card doesn't work because I demagnetized the stripe." This technology is just starting to roll out, but the most amazing feature RFID-enabled hotel keys allow is to skip the check-in line altogether. Aloft, a brand of hotels in the Starwood group, is piloting a program where you will be issued an RFID hotel key when you become a member, and before you arrive, you will receive the room number by text, letting you just walk directly up to your room.
The TerribleThere's something wrong with the hotel room, or it's not the view you wanted, so you'll need to go back downstairs and wait in line anyway.
All This Amazingness. Why Are We Still Such Crabby Travelers?
(SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images)
The amazing thing is that traveling uses the same core technologies invented in roughly the last century: the automobile, the jet engine, security backed by guns. Travel itself hasn't changed much. Most of the advances in travel have come through improvements in access to information and data. That will get you far, but it hasn't yet produced a paradigmatic shift in our experience. Our crabbiness about travel can be muted, delayed, massaged and expressed with all these advances in information technology, but until inventions like the Hyperloop come to life, we'll still be in a state of "everything's amazing, and nobody is happy." And there are no guarantees that we'll be happy on the Hyperloop.
I should know; I run a company that entertains bored people and they're everywhere.