We were about twenty minutes into our tour of the CNN studio in Atlanta when Greg, an eccentric guide in a tomato-red polo, turned around. “Are there any questions?”
I sneered. For weeks, CNN’s unremitting coverage of MH 370 has been the object of my family’s ridicule. “Yeah,” I joked to my dad, under my breath, “Do you guys think you could report on something else?”
I was kidding, but not entirely. The plane’s disappearance had become a caricature of itself; the media had somehow dulled the sting of an unresolved tragedy. Death was reduced to a mound of cheap television gimmicks as news anchors capitalized on anxiety and held onto “revelations” until words from our sponsors. And when empty musings on Flight 370 were all that Wolf Blitzer read off the teleprompter, it wasn’t too soon for late-night hosts to poke fun at human loss.
But last week, cable news paused its coverage of Malaysian 370. In moments, a ferry boat off the southwest coast of South Korea became the new fetish of coiffed television hosts. The ship had sunk just beside island of Jindo, leaving hundreds of high school students missing in a dark and enigmatic wreck.
CNN stopped talking about one vessel that disappeared into the ocean so that it could start talking about another vessel that disappeared into the ocean.
“Their fate remains uncertain.”
“Parents await word on their children.”
“Still no word from officials.”
As quickly as the boat had gone down, the New York Times had published the final texts, instant messages, and phone call transcripts to a number of Danwon High School parents from their children aboard the foundering ship. Seong-hee told her dad that she couldn’t move “because all the kids are in the corridor. And because the ship is tilting too much.” Her family received no subsequent messages from her. Kim Beom-soo wrote to his father, “hope we can meet again alive.” They haven’t.
Today the death toll rose to 150, and the same number remains unaccounted for. The kids aboard the ship are gone. The Boeing 777’s passengers – young couples and their infant children, the stewardesses and the pilots – are also dead. There is no news from the bottom of the ocean.
But if we’re so certain of their fate – if it’s unmistakably clear – then why do we keep watching? We don’t feel resolved. There’s something compelling the media to keep talking about it, to jack up the tempo at which they ask questions, and to continue asking them at all.
Is it simply a matter of ratings? It’s convenient to point fingers at the news anchor – that albatross in a designer suit who takes the brunt of our resentment. But that’s too easy. Sure, television producers are sensationalizing their coverage, but they aren’t bending us to some supreme magnetic will; they’re tapping into an element of our own nature. We’re buying in. We keep watching.
Why don’t we crane our necks to the East, and bear witness to a roiling civil conflict in Crimea and Ukraine? Or to Yemen, where an “unprecedented” American drone strike last week killed more than 50 terrorists? These are but blips on the iPhone screen–fleeting, unsubstantial news “updates” squandered when things fall into the ocean.
We can’t stop staring into the ocean.
Why is it our impulse to eclipse real, consequential events in favor of boat crashes and airliner whoddunits clean out of an Agatha Christie novel? Why can’t we stop staring?
“Because we all fly on airplanes,” a friend of mine suggested this week. I suppose that when I read that elegiac piece on the young lives aboard Malaysian 370, I conceived of myself as vulnerable – as mortal. I became inexorably tied to those people. For a moment, I was them.
And I suppose I inhabited an uncertainty in that moment. Dad flies to JFK for business all the time. I’m flying home to Los Angeles next week. Every conference, every wedding, every funeral and break from school – everyone flies on planes.
But the mortality answer isn’t enough. If it were only our fear of death that drew us in, we might be likewise enchanted by the strife in Eastern Europe and Yemen. But we’re not. There’s something else.
During an era in which we’ve mapped everything, the plane and the boat are enigmas. In eight seconds, I can dig up the color of your childhood clarinet teacher’s Acura. In a third of that time, I can find her address. If I can’t, someone else (likely the agent mentioned in the above scenario) can. Somewhere in Russia, there’s a spectacled man who’s the object of an investigation that spans continents. Someone knows everything.
A recent piece in the Atlantic probed deeper. Alexis Madrigal’s April 22 article explored the mounting overlaps between artificial intelligence and surveillance practices, highlighting one particular convention of government agencies. “It’s commonplace for security systems to set up a number of rules-based alerts for their video analytics,” wrote Madrigal. “So if an object on the screen (a person, or a car, for instance) crosses a designated part of the scene, an alert is passed on to the human operator,” who surveys the footage.
We’re talking Google maps on anabolic steroids.
In 2000, after the Clinton administration stopped “blunt(ing) the accuracy” of civilian positioning devices, the GPS fell in price, ultimately becoming a fixture of most new tech gadgets. Only fourteen years later, with two swipes and a click, there’s a university library on my lap. My whisper can command a three-by-five piece of metal to bring me a pizza, or at the very least point me in the direction of one. In 2014, for every thing there is to know, there’s a person who knows it. For every place there is to find, there’s someone who’s found it.
Except for Flight 370.
We can track down the replaceable: keys and cell phones, cars and credit cards, but we can’t find a colossal hunk of metal and more than 200 souls. And we’re only beginning to find those kids, and plaster a cause atop the senselessness of the wreck. When we’ve learned every letter and read every book, our sporadic spurts of illiteracy feel unnerving. But they’re mesmerizing.
When things fall into the ocean, we feel an elegant, cathartic pain. In all of our knowing and all our certainty, in all the conceit of our 21st century omniscience – we still don’t know.
There’s something soothing about not knowing; even in discomfort, there seems a weight lifted off humanity’s shoulders. For a split second, we’re free. We can be at ease in our impotence.
Next time the man in the tomato-red polo asks if I still have questions, I’ll keep my mouth shut, and wonder.
A version of this articled appeared in the Huffington Post.