The ultimate aisle seat. (Photo from the Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)
The ultimate aisle seat (from the Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

Optimize this. Life hack that. Is optimizing soulless when it turns a blind eye to other people?

Yesterday my family and I stood in the Southwest Airlines boarding lineup (in the A group, having checked in within mere seconds of the 24-hour check-in window opening). Immediately in front of us were a middle-aged couple who were perhaps a nanosecond quicker with their mouse click or smartphone swipe.

“Lets sit on two aisle seats across from each other,” said the woman. The man nodded.

Meanwhile I’m thinking that my family of three might not have a chance to sit together. Luckily there were plenty of seats at the back of the plane. The seats we grabbed ended up being right behind the optimizing couple.

“This is a full flight,” announced the flight attendant.

The woman spread open a copy of the New York Times. The man glanced at his Daniel Kahneman book. More people boarded the plane, shuffling toward the rear of the rapidly-filling cabin.

Eventually a couple of solo-riders grabbed window seats, which left middle seats next to both of the optimizers. These only filled up when the attendant announced “there are no more seats in the back. If you see a middle seat grab it.”

It either escaped the attention of of the optimizer couple that their actions had lousy consequences (friends far back in the check-in queue had to sit apart), or they just didn’t care.

My guess is they just didn’t care. These people seemed pretty smart–putting aside their callous seat choices (yes, I’m judging here. I know I’m far from perfect) . They spent the flight passing NYT and New Yorker articles back and forth. The man was reading Kahneman. Many of the articles seemed to be about optimizing, like “how to be happy,” and “how to raise successful children.”

I imagined the couple’s home: a mansion designed to provide each occupant (probably just them) maximum space and convenience. Same mental picture of their daily commutes.

Meanwhile, they aren’t sitting next to each other. Nor are the folks they displace. And the world is burning up because we consume so damn much, in an optimized way of course.

I’m into optimizing too, as all people probably should be. However, my hope is for a bit more objectivity about my surroundings and what other people are going through.

Southwest Airlines, a company with many fine merits, must know that their seating system sets up a kind of game theory among its riders. The couple I observed are participants in the “prisoners dilemma” that undercut their competition (otherwise known as fellow sovereign souls) in order to get ahead themselves.

I’m tagging this blog post under the category “life improvements,” but really this is about life improvement beyond life improvement. We’re flooded with content premised on life improvement. Time for a bit more awareness.

Like I said, I’m far from perfect. For example, I eat fish during a time of fishery collapses. I’m putting myself first all the time, just like this couple. They were just so damn rude it woke me up to what is going on.

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