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

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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump