The Vastness and Darkness of Earth, According to One Missing Airliner

Flight 370 and the justified bafflement of future-humans.

Mar 15 2014, 7:40pm

There’s a lot more to the question, asked again and again over the past week (yes, it’s been a week), of how do you lose a jetliner full of hundreds of people? I, like a lot of people, assumed that a commercial airliner in the year 2014 is being watched by someone or at least something at every moment that it’s in the air. A full 777 must be a blip on someone’s radar at more or less any time, no?

The situation wouldn’t be half as baffling just a decade ago, as our expectations for tracking have gone through the roof while our simple notion of space (as in the distance between things) has become warped by both modern jet travel itself and, crucially, a social media sphere that further screws with our notions of distance via constant geolocation and map saturation. Still, in the realest of reals, the Earth is huge, incomprehensibly so, and as all of this stuff continues to warp our senses of space-time, that hugeness becomes even more a mystery.

The Washington Post has a pretty neat interactive graphic up right now demonstrating the scale at which the current search for the airliner is up against, pitting the search area vs. the aircraft’s size. It could be worse even: the plane could have gone down in the middle of the southern Atlantic Ocean, as Air France 447 did just a few years ago, or it could have gone down in the South Pacific. Instead, it appears the flight went down in a portion of the Indian Ocean that’s not half as remote as it gets on our planet. Bizarrely, the aircraft now seems to have tracked directly across the sky of one of Southeast Asia’s most major cities, Penang, before again heading offshore, over a new ocean.

A million explainers of the past week have gone into the multiple parallel flight tracking systems that exist on Earth and how, as a flight pushes into remoteness, those systems pare down until a plane basically has long-distance radio communication initiated by pilots or ground controllers and automated diagnostic messages sent to an airline’s mechanical and dispatch centers. Within a certain relatively small range (hundreds of miles), ground-based air traffic control can “ping” a jet to receive its altitude and identity information, as well as utilize a newer system called automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast, in which an aircraft gets its own position information via GPS and relays it to ground controllers.

Those two primary ways of observing aircraft have a limited range when you reach the scales of oceans, and, for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, we’re left with the Malaysian military’s radar—which typically searches for “hostile” aircraft and disregards everything else as birds, apparently—and that’s what put us in the Indian Ocean, on the seventh day and over a thousand(s) miles off the flight’s planned course. With nothing.

Corridors where an Inmarsat satellite is calculated to have received the last ACARS signal from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

As hypermodern people, we assume we’re tracked all of the time, even just as humans with smart-phones or other portable internet-connected devices. That’s partially true: as connected people we’re in a constant push and pull over our geographic data as every new app tries to slip a “[blank] would like to access your current location” past. Eventually, people just get worn down by the requests (I did, anyway) and resistance turns to the assumption that “they” have already accessed that geo-info somehow anyway, so let's just click "Allow."

Of course, all the Snowden-revealed NSA junk makes that assumption all the more palpable, though I can’t even remember what sort of geolocation is involve in metadata, if any. But, like quite possibly you, I just assume the worst, that someone somewhere can if they so choose register me, little old not-an-airplane me, as a blip on a screen, with my iPhone acting as my personal transponder, albeit boasting a whole lot more info than altitude and flight number. That’s not really how it works, of course, but what makes it tangible is that it’s how things could work without too much modification in the personal communication scheme. Or, rather, that's how things are set up to work.

But this kind of micro-tracking is still only possible at surprisingly small scales. Throw us out over the ocean and our personal communications junk goes dark, and quickly. It also goes dark in a lot of places just here in the US. I lived in one for a year a little ways back, in some mountains in Colorado. There’s a lot of darkness out there and here, some of it very close and some of it spread over incomprehensibly vast spaces. Meanwhile, connection remains the default mindstate for probably most people reading this, when, in reality, Earth just remains too big for it to be connected all of the time, to suck up all of that darkness into pings and pingbacks. That has to mean something for us as evolving techno-beings.

A bunch of environmental thinkers/philosphers all kind of said the same thing at once in the '60s/'70s about, essentially, dark spaces: we need them even if we never touch them. Ed Abbey said: "We need a refuge even though we may never need to set foot in it. We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope.” So, at the same time, we should all be a bit thankful that Earth remains capable of swallowing an airliner, and we should take note of scenes like this, where the connected world's thin filaments spanning the other, wild world blow apart and just how easy that is.