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The lost passengers of Flight MH370: why the modern world can’t cope with missing people

In a world where we expect everyone to be accounted for, missing people enter into the realm of fiction.

The arrivals board at Beijing International Airport on 8 March lists Flight MH370 as cancelled. Photo: Getty
The arrivals board at Beijing International Airport on 8 March lists Flight MH370 as cancelled. Photo: Getty

The passengers of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 exist. Somewhere on this earth, on an obscure stretch of land or deep under the sea, alive, or – as is now almost assured – dead, are 226 human beings and the vessel that carried them.

We live in an age of information that extends to the names, whereabouts, relationship statuses and latest culinary activities of anyone in the world we choose to check up on. Whether a “check-in” is logged or a “pin” is dropped, we take it as a given that, should we want to find out what a person is up to at any given time (spouse, child, rogue employee), that information would be readily and satisfyingly available. We rely on a warped yet comforting sense of community.

This assumption, I believe, informs a worldview that is particular to the digital age: when I picture a person, I picture their surroundings. I can contextualise any friend or colleague in a particular place and at a particular activity because I have access, often to my annoyance (stop with those Starbucks selfies, friend-from-home), to a minute-to-minute account of what they’re up to.

So the inability to account for a person, regardless of the fact that we would in all likelihood never have crossed time-zones with them let alone become internet friends, creates a state of unease that reads like a glitch in the matrix. Raised on algorithms, spreadsheets and screens – on systems that by their nature Do Not Make Mistakes – the absence of a planeload of people from the record creates a disturbance that extends beyond the human concern for the Malaysian Airlines passengers and their families. The rate of rolling coverage, and the pervasiveness of whispered back-and-forths on the streets of London at least, have far exceeded the meagre material from which they are extrapolating. We have been nudged to look again at the people around us and the millions more out of sight. Something of the safe “togetherness” we assume of technology has fractured, and we are irked.

To picture the passengers is to picture the abstract: a black hole of information into which pour a million possible geographical coordinates and a million possible fates. It is a wall of data, growing with every examination until we must accept it as an “unknown unknown”. We are inclined to resolve the contradictory, to unpick paradoxes, so that we feel safe in a predictable world that follows law and logic.

It is impossible to find a context for the passengers. Faced with both the unravelling of our networked world and with the paradox of the people who, like 226 Schrödinger’s cats, occupy some hazy territory between life and death, we have moved them unconsciously into the realm of fiction. No longer associated with a time or a place, they have been resolved into the iconic and the mystical. They join the ranks of Amelia Earhart and latterly, Madeleine McCann, likely to spawn column inches indefinitely.

It is a frustrating and impotent answer, a cognitive sticking-plaster that serves as much to tease as to satisfy. The missing are of such interest because they embody everything that contradicts our understanding of the world while not, apparently, existing at all. We cannot envisage something that ceases to be. Matter is conserved, we are told in school – things cannot be conjured and neither can they vanish. The world is of finite material.

So when all evidence points to the impossible, when Earhart’s and McCann’s and possibly flight MH370’s trails run cold, we are backed into a corner without reason or conclusion. And like morbid magicians who have pulled off the unimaginable, the missing move into legend. But while they are committed to memory and immortalised in print, the real events go unreported, and what is most likely the simple, agonising story of a premature end, is buried, like the individuals, in mystique.