Editorial: Ships, planes and augury

Kingston Times editor Dan Barton.

Kingston Times editor Dan Barton.

I admit it — I am obsessed with that freaking plane. Aren’t you? It’s a hell of a crazy story, a tale which does at least two things at once. It shatters the illusion that in our Google Earth-world, where the NSA and Big Data are thought to control, or at least have a handle on, every last byte of life nothing — especially a commercial jetliner with 239 people on it — can vanish with neither trace nor explanation. It also reminds us that on our globalized globe, where we can Facebook with people from Inner Mongolia to the Outer Hebrides, there are still mind-bogglingly vast swathes of space where humans just don’t go and just don’t know. When’s the last time you thought about the southern Indian Ocean? Lots of room for anything to be out there: A secret underwater base for a villain straight out of a James Bond movie, giant Boeing 777-swallowing sea monsters, gargantuan submarine/aircraft carriers, you name it.

It’s human nature to aggregate information and divulge patterns within, and to use the past to predict what’s going to happen next. Sometimes this is a perfectly valid way to comprehend our present and divine our future, other times it leads down a bunny hole of false beliefs and spurious insights. It is in that spirit that I spin this tapestry of news-threads with some hope that it makes some kind of sense. (It is also done with respect to the families of the people on that plane; obsession by news outlets and addled editors aside, there are real people suffering real panic and real grief over the real prospect that they may never, ever know what happened to their loved ones. That’s a hell no one should have to endure.)

When people express astonishment and incredulity at the prospect of the plane never being found (see also, Amelia Earhart), you hear people point out that it took something close to 70 years to find the Titanic. This got me thinking. As the Titanic seemed a ready symbol for the shattering of the illusion of human supremacy over nature and fate, so Flight 370 may be a symbol for a different kind of illusion-shattering — that of human supremacy over unpredictability and uncertainty. An upside of our technological interconnectedness is the idea that this vastness of data can insulate us from so many bad outcomes; we don’t have to get lost anymore if we have GPS, we don’t have to eat at a crappy restaurant if we can look it up online, we don’t have to wonder about much of anything if we can connect to Wikipedia. The anxiety which springs from having to trust and taking a chance … we’ve waged a war against that and succeeded to a great extent in insulating ourselves from the agony of the consequences of mistaken choices. “No alarms and no surprises, please.”


But our linked-in, socially networked smart-phoney lifestyle, constantly foisted upon us as THE superior way to be a human these days, can’t save us from the one thing we humans can absolutely not escape: our own nature, which includes insanity. It could well be that the pilot, for no “reason” at all for insanity is the utter absence of reason, fomented an elaborate plot to fly his plane and all aboard somewhere it would never, ever be found. (Things like this have happened before — back in 1999, it is believed by some, the pilot of EgyptAir Flight 990 killed himself and 216 other people by flying the plane into the Atlantic.)

How can you stop something like that? Kind of like mass shootings — all our metrics and information technology still can’t predict or halt the potentially disastrous results of one human mind critically malfunctioning.

Getting back to the Titanic, as students of history know the sinking of that splendid boat is now considered to be the end of the old era and the beginning of the new. Two years later Europe would begin destroying itself in the cataclysm which engulfed the world in fire, death and mustard gas — and gave birth to, more or less, the world we live in today. Exactly 100 years later, it’s not hard to see the shape of another storm on the horizon. Nobody can say for sure how all this business in the Ukraine will end. As a stunning ship disaster was an ill star portending a great war, maybe a stunning plane disaster portends another time of war, disaster and upheaval, an era which could be far worse, given nuclear weapons, global warming and overpopulation.

Or maybe I should stop watching so much freaking cable news and trying to see patterns and omens where there really aren’t any. Human nature — what are you gonna do?