Rant: Knee Defender is an indefensible passenger offender

knee defenderA plane was recently diverted in the US. A man used the Knee Defender to prevent the person in front of him from reclining her seat. The airline staff asked him to remove the device. He refused. The woman in the seat in front threw a glass of water over him, leading to the airline diverting the plane. (In case that’s not clear there’s an animated video at the end that explains the whole thing.) This story led me to one of my forays into the darker side of the Internet down the rabbit-hole of the airline discussion boards.

The Knee Defender is a simple enough device. It locks on the hinges of the tray table in front of you. Those hinges move as the seat reclines and if you lock them in place the seat cannot recline. People use it to prevent the person in front of them reclining their seat and so hitting their knees or making it difficult to use a laptop on the tray table.

But here’s the thing just because the technology allows you to do it doesn’t mean it is right, fair, advisable or polite to do so. Person A has bought a seat with the expectation of some comfort from that seat reclining. Yes it may inconvenience Person B sitting behind, but that’s the give-and-take we all have to deal with when getting on a plane. Person B has no right to impose their convenience on Person A. Unless of course you head into the airline discussion boards where it is apparently largely an article of faith that a person has no right to recline their seat.

There are two ways of looking at this whole issue and both leave using the Knee Defender as indefensible. The first is the ethics of the situation. You simply don’t get to become comfortable at the expense of others. Imposing your will on others is the act of a child or a sociopath – this is one of those things that parents teach their children not to do: Don’t grab the toy just because you want it. Don’t push to the front of the line. Don’t eat more than your share of the Birthday cake. These are the rules of compromise which allow our society to function.

But according to most people in the airline discussion boards, it’s perfectly alright to use Knee Defender “because I’m tall”, “because the airlines don’t provide enough space”, “because the person putting their seat back means I can’t use my laptop”. Flying is often no fun these days. But you just make an uncomfortable situation worse if you think you are the center of the universe.

But leaving the ethics to one side for a moment, the other problem is that this is classic instance of technological escalation. Once you start down this road where you get to do something just because the technology allows it, the next step is someone else trumps your technological advantage. So how about I invent a device to protect those exposed tray-table hinges so you can’t put the Knee Defender on? Is it OK that I take control of the hinges? Or perhaps I have a device that makes your laptop screen turn off so I’m not offended by the flickering light? Or what about the Arm Defender a spiked device that prevents a fat person sitting next to you spilling over your arm-rest? You see the point, just because the technology allows for it doesn’t change that basic rule of society that you simply don’t get to decide to do something just because you can.

The danger we live with as technology allows us to do stuff, is that we forget that power does not equate to right. We are becoming hemmed into our own world where we generally interact with strangers and feel no sense of responsibility towards them. And this is why teaching ethics in schools is so essential.

OK rant over. Normal programming will now resume.

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