What a Missing Jet Means to a World Where People Rarely Get Lost

Stuff just doesn’t get lost the way it used to. In the old days, which is to say fewer than ten years ago, you might take a wrong turn out of the rental-car lot at a large metropolitan airport and find yourself driving for hours around a sketchy part of town, partially panicked and squinting at landmarks. Thanks to GPS, Google Maps, and Google Earth, this doesn’t happen anymore. You always know where you are — even in the dark, even at an unfamiliar intersection, even on a mountaintop or in a basement bar in a foreign city. Thanks to HopStop, Embark, Yelp, and the folks at Apple, you can always figure out how to get where you need to go. The people you love — you’ve got their coordinates. Even people you never think about (the little girl you used to babysit for who just “checked in” at a bookstore in rural Connecticut), are continuously plotting their whereabouts on the big social-media grid. House keys and eyeglasses still get misplaced, sure, but important things and very large things — like airplanes — don’t simply vanish.
Which may explain the obsession with Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared en route to Beijing last week. In a world where data keeps us constantly pinned in place and where any Joe on the street has fluent use of the word transponder, a lost plane is a true mystery and more: a relic from an ancient time when crazy, inexplicable events regularly happened, prompting people to offer prayers as ballast and sacrifices to gods. There were volcanoes, which destroyed villages with fire and molten rock. Men went out hunting and never came home. Locusts, plagues, drought — these things demanded careful human attention and obeisance because, like Flight 370, they not only carried with them the prospect of death but also because humans had not discerned their cause. We live in a hyper-rational, data-driven time; geeks are our kings and queens. When something inexplicable happens, we are in awe, suddenly, of concepts that the ancients took for granted: the suffering of innocents, supernatural causes, and twists of fate.

We are now entering day eight of wall-to-wall coverage, scrutinized by the masses like scripture. The Wall Street Journal reports that the plane may have been in the air four hours longer than previously thought. The acting transportation minister of Malaysia, Hishammuddin Hussein, becomes a minor celebrity when he goes on television to deny it. The Washington Post creates an interactive graphic — it goes viral — illustrating the vastness of the search area compared to the size of the plane. “Every lead that comes up seems to evaporate,” says George Stephanopoulos on ABC News, wearing the somber look of an anchor anticipating human tragedy.

Certain news outlets lead with anxious relatives waiting to hear from loved ones aboard, and that’s part of the rubbernecking that goes on in any crisis — there but for the grace of God, etc. — but let’s be honest. Since when has an airline disaster in the developing world been a top story for more than a day or two? Who in the community of news junkies mourns for the more than 150 people killed in the Dana Air crash near Lagos in June 2012? Or the 127 killed in the Bhoja Airlines disaster near Islamabad?

What draws people to #MH370, prompting a Twitter explosion, is that a lost plane runs counter to our contemporary understanding of the world.  If technology has achieved anything, we believe, it’s that we know how to find airplanes and the bodies riding in them — even if they happen to have embarked in Kuala Lumpur. (Weren’t they all carrying smartphones?) This insistence on the achievability of knowing through data prompted a Colorado company called DigitalGlobe, which runs five satellites and provides imaging assistance to Google and Apple, to try to crowdsource the lost plane, posting sections of the Gulf of Thailand online, and asking users to scan them for debris. Half a million people signed up, and the DigitalGlobe site crashed.

What happened up there at 36,000 feet? Where is that plane? These are questions for which there may, ultimately, be answers. But the question that preoccupies us now — how does a jetliner disappear? — is a question that belongs to the realm of faith. And the answers beyond the obvious ones (mechanical failure, pilot error, bomb) are defiant of reason and agnostic on the revelations of technology. Alien abduction. Global conspiracy. Act of God. It should surprise no one that as the search stretches into week two, there’s a popular hashtag on Twitter: prayformh370.