Welcome to the Age of Dwell Time

In airports and online, companies want to maximize the hours you spend as a consumer.

People waiting in El Prat Josep Tarradellas Airport
People waiting in El Prat Josep Tarradellas Airport in Barcelona, Spain, seen on March 13, 2007.
Photo by Esteban Chiner/Flickr

Time is a funny thing at airports. When your departure gets delayed, 30 minutes can feel like an eternity. When you’re running late to catch a flight in an unfamiliar airport, an hour can go by in the blink of an eye. The security line inches along excruciatingly until you’re at the checkpoint, and then you suddenly feel rushed, tripping over your own feet as you dismantle your belongings for X-ray screening.

One reliable thing to do with extra (even unwanted) time at the airport is to eat. Lately, airport food has been trying to outgrow its connotations as bland and generic; I’ve seen this most recently in the brand-new terminal that just opened to serve New Orleans, the new Louis Armstrong International. The new terminal boasts favorite local eateries and bars so travelers don’t have to turn to fast food or soggy pre-wrapped sandwiches.

In a recent article about the array of restaurants at the new terminal, I noticed a curious phrase used to describe how the concessioners approached these venues: “Airport restaurateurs have to learn the dynamics of ‘dwell time’ (the time passengers spend at the terminal).” Here, dwell time means estimating and capturing potential customers in their element: not necessarily as diners first and foremost, but as travelers. Dwelling runs counter to the fundamental logic of airports, which is to keep people flowing.

But “dwell time” has another meaning, for another domain of contemporary culture: website design and management. Dwell time can also refer to how many seconds, minutes, or even hours online users spend on a single webpage. As one digital marketing company defines it: “Dwell time combines a certain amount of art and science to the internet experience. It’s a measure of how your users utilize your website by factoring in how long they hang out on certain pages.” Lingering on a webpage also means seeing ads and potentially clicking on them (on purpose or by accident), thus directing corresponding revenue flows to the advertisers.

At first these two uses of dwell time may sound similar enough. They each suggest an attention to how long people stay in a place (in an airport, on a website), and they are both aimed at maximizing revenue. But in an important way, the different uses of the phrase have oppositional purposes: Dwell time in airports is a critically temporary and fleeting interval. Online, dwell time might be maximized in the moment, and drawn out perpetually. An app or website can only hope that such time spent there continues and becomes all-consuming. The dream of dwell time in an online sense is that it might become all the time. The longer the time the user is on the site, the more revenue streams back toward the host. Imagine the social media that never gets turned off, akin to the speculative app in Spike Jonze’s 2013 film, Her.

In both usages, “dwell time” is a euphemism for revenue potential, a chance to extract profit. But whereas the airport example is spatialized and temporized in physically contained senses, internet dwell time is able to insinuate itself into so many other places and moments of everyday life.

In airports, the two forms of dwell time occasionally coexist and overlap. Picture a delayed traveler eating fries or sipping a beer while idly scrolling through their Instagram or Facebook feed. Waiting, dwelling, consuming.

But the commingling of these two forms of dwell time has a limit. Airports must keep passengers flowing, from waiting to departing, from arrivals to baggage and curbside, and eventually back again. Dwell time is temporary, bounded, and cyclical. Dwell time on one’s phone or computer, on the other hand, can precede—and extend through and beyond—the airport. Ideally, online dwell time is even maintained throughout the stages of flight: Onboard Wi-Fi increasingly makes this possible and even expected.

The conjunction of these two forms of dwell time can create an unnerving sight. A few years ago, airport restaurants began installing iPads on which customers could order their food and drink—and into which they could gaze, scrolling and tapping, while they waited for and consumed their items. Encountering these spaces for the first time could be an uncanny experience: the disappeared waitstaff, the compulsory media saturation, the aura of total tablet domination. Looking at these spaces through the double lens of dwell time, the image is even more unsettling. Travelers appear reduced to livestock, evenly stationed in front of uniform digital troughs and mediocre, overpriced hamburgers.

This increasingly common airport scene, seen slightly aslant, might call to mind The Matrix, when we first realize where Neo has been living his whole life: in a cubicallike, life-supporting vat. Neo is plugged in, thoroughly satiated and entertained by an elaborate simulation. Dwelling time is all the time, for Neo—until he breaks free from the Matrix.

We may not be worried about getting stuck in the airport, interpellated into such a stark cyberpunk scene. We can get in and out of airplanes and airports decisively and without ambiguity. We may feel as though our phones and computers are still in our hands, so to speak—we can control where we dwell, and for how long. We know when to shut our computers down for the night, when to put our phones in airplane mode.

But if we run these spiral-bound scenarios out to their logical conclusions—which is what capitalism tends to do: to grow growth, to metastasize—we can see how the situation becomes uncomfortably blurry. Internet commerce desires as much dwell time as possible. Airports don’t necessarily need dwell time to increase at airport restaurants for discrete passengers. Rather, airports work to facilitate as much—if not constant—dwell time in their restaurants as part of a larger effort to maintain the flow of departures and arrivals. In other words, optimized dwell time at airports requires human transit to remain persistent. We might not yet recognize our flying selves in Keanu Reeves’ captive Neo from The Matrix, but with commercial air travel on the rise and persona digital media technologies only proliferating … there will only be more opportunities to collapse the boundaries between varying forms of dwell time.

In this light, it’s interesting to ponder how none other than Keanu Reeves has come to embody a particularly mesmerizing form of dwell time, as an unquenchable internet meme. So much so that any Keanu news or sighting becomes something to follow, something to dwell on. One doesn’t even need to create a meme: Keanu comes ready-made, even to the point of becoming the unmistakable voice of Duke Caboom in Toy Story 4. For some ineffable reason, Keanu has become the perfect thing to look at bemusedly, between other clicks and views. As if we might dwell with Keanu, forever in flight with his magisterial visage.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.