The disappearance of flight MH370 has captured the public imagination. Hope and loss rise and fall with the crest and descent of each wave as the world’s most powerful nations combine with the international community to bring to bear their oft touted formidable resources to search the vast expanse of the sea to find a missing plane.
Entire columns have been written full of mere conjecture about what has happened to the missing plane with critiques focusing on foul play and technological failure, technology that we have come so dependent on in this epoch of history called the digital era.
Of course, grandiose conjecture is part of the make up of humanity for we are a myth making people. Thus, the narratives that attempt to fill in the blanks, to seek to explain, have been repeated throughout history whenever the sea has swallowed up our creations. The Leviathan was a large sea monster, the fear and scourge of sailors and the focus of Herman Melville’s classic “Moby Dick”.
The Kraken was a colossal sea octopus of Norse mythology said to “swallow men and ships, even whales and everything else within reach. It was written that “It stayed submerged for days, then reared its head and nostrils above surface and stays that way at least until the change of the tide”.
Naturally, in our post-modern era of technological advancement we humans are no longer susceptible to such “primitive thinking” and yet despite our claims of “evolution” we are at heart still primitive thinkers, our monsters now manifest in the form of the very things we trust the most, our technology. A broken landing gear, an inept tracking beacons, missing black boxes, engine failure. These unfortunate circumstances combined with our other favourite: terrorism, makes our monsters incarnate in the digital age.
All of our technology combines to provides us with a sense of certainty about our place in the world. If this is the Digital Era then it is also the Age of Certainty. Doubt is not a place that sits well with us, yet doubt, our not knowing, is but a central component to the human journey. Not knowing grounds us, it staves away the inevitable arrogance that assuredly accompanies doubts polar opposite- certainty, always knowing. Having it all figured out
It is for this reason I believe that despite the fact that the families of this missing plane want and need closure, the search is also driven by the disbelief that our technology is simply unable to provide the answers that we seek. Culturally, this doubt and uncertainty is unsettling in a time when our science and complete faith in humanity’s ability to provide all the answers reigns preeminent.
However,the paradox is that despite all our wonderful technological advancements we still are unable to answer some of the basic questions about life that continue to confound us and it is in this grey area, in the auspices of a lack of clarity, we find ourselves disconcerted and forced to reckon with our limitations our finitude.
The truth is we don’t have all the answers in as much as our public and private discourse alludes us to believe. We in fact, don’t know some of the most basic and simple answers to things here on our planet, like how deep the ocean is. We certainly know now how deep it is in parts and our technology can provide us with estimates, however the truth is that we don’t actually know how deep it is for a fact. This is unbelievable considering the fact that we can put human beings into space, transplant hearts, carry mini computers that fit in our pocket and yet.. we don’t know how deep the ocean is.
I find great humility in this, even more so when I contrast the advancements of our society by virtue of human ingenuity and place it next to something many of us would deem less than, like the penguin. While watching a ‘National Geographic’ piece that followed the lives of a penguin colony I was struck by the narrators comments as viewers like myself were fixated on the pivotal moment in the life of a young penguin engaged in making a perilous dash into the ocean, it’s success or failure the determinant of life and death as it first had to navigate the predators waiting in the throes of the sea like the Kraken. As the penguin makes its run and successfully dove into the deep the narrator said “ So the penguin makes its way into the ocean to learn its secrets”. It’s with humbling realisation that I was awakened to the fact that even the penguins know secrets about the ocean that we don’t, in as much as the eagle is an expertise on flight in ways that are innate and human beings will never understand. We just don’t know.
It is no surprise then that after a 17 day search, the Malaysian government has stated that the plane has crashed ‘somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean’.
Of course it is our technology that provides the answer because for us IT IS the answer, it is our comfort, even though it tells us next to nothing about what happened. To put that statement in perspective what it really means is that they calculated that the plane possibly landed in an area which is 73,556,000 km.
In reality, we don’t know anything more today than we did 17 days ago and yet this answer will bring comfort to the many but little consolation to the few whose loved ones lie somewhere within that immense body of water.
Our technology, in as much as it is an example of the brilliance of the human mind, also serves as the metaphorical expression for the unwavering confidence in ourselves and in our belief and ability to fix any problem- to find and provide answers.
This is not the first time something went missing in the ocean. Human history is littered with tales of missing ships never to return, swallowed up whole by the K̶r̶a̶k̶e̶n̶ ocean.
In an era of certainty and ultimate trust and reliance in our technology to prevent, fix, and solve all of humanity’s problems, the unexplainable and the tragic is magnified by our technologies inability to provide answers. The desperate search to find the wreckage of flight MH370 is also a search to reclaim a sense of certainty that is lost when we’re unable to come up with the answers and for a culture that thrives on certainty via our technologically dependence this is deeply disconcerting indeed.
If our technology is the metaphorical expression of human ingenuity and our ability to solve problems, to find solutions, then the ocean, deep and vast, stands juxtaposed to it as the repository of all that is still unknown and with that understanding we are forced to also contend with our own fragility.
The question of this age is that when we fail each other in the unwritten social contract of human decency or in those circumstances when our technology fails to provide the answers to those tragedies that are sure to happen to us, what do we have left? What can we turn to, to sustain us?