Shortly after midnight, the regular red-eye flight from Kuala Lumpur rumbled off the runway and lifted gracefully into the darkened sky. The Boeing 777-200ER with its 227 sleepy passengers and dozen crew members climbed to its cruising altitude of 35,000 feet for the six hour flight north to its Beijing destination. Exactly forty minutes later, Subang-area Air Traffic Control (ATC) lost contact with the Malaysian Airlines jet in the Gulf of Thailand, en-route to the Strait of Malacca. For the next hour and a half, Subang ATC, along with other nearby aircraft attempted to reach Flight 370’s crew on the radio, and using the International Distress Frequency, to no avail[1]. At 02:40 in the morning of March 8, 2014, Malaysian Airways was notified that their $261.5-million aircraft[2] was missing, and four-and-a-half hours later they informed the world.

Quickly search and rescue teams sprung into action, and requests went out for radar data from civilian and military tracking stations throughout Southeast Asia and Oceania. Yet what began as yet another lost aircraft amid dozens of regional airlines with poor safety records quickly spiralled into something far more sinister and perplexing. Nobody seemed to know what happened to the aircraft, where it was, or why there was no indication of trouble from the crew or the aircraft’s systems. Typically, when an aircraft incident occurs, the crew emits a Mayday message or a hijacking codeword to give authorities an idea of what is occurring. Furthermore, the plethora of satellites, radar installations, and naval craft give a pretty good indication of where all this is occurring. These are all some of the wonders and benefits of flying around in the Information Age. This extends even beyond the scope of the authorities involved – the average citizen today has access to much of this data and with the assistance of Google, CNN, Wikipedia, and Facebook, can generally find the answer to the meaning of life within a matter of minutes and keystrokes. But what happens when the Information Age misses its namesake? What happens when the information so constantly available and prevalent is suddenly nowhere to be found? What happens when the entire society’s expectation of knowing is replaced by the desolate unanswerable question?

Over the past two decades, we have enthusiastically moved into what we term an Information Society, which for this purpose is considered synonymous with Information Age and Network Society.[3] The key features of this society include an information economy, where knowledge is currency[4]; and where there is a gap between those who are a part of the society with access to information technologies, and those who are on the outside, secluded from the defining tools of the age[5]. The networks that enable, and are enabled by, information society provide a level of global connectivity that binds human activity together.[6] Yet as Marina Levina and Grant Kien point out, this “network” becomes seen as an entity unto itself; a singular lynchpin upon which societal control is based and managed[7]. But these conceptual visions of the network are surrounded by the information itself, which enables the network or networks to form inescapable bonds with the very fabric of society. Levina and Kien base their ensuing book on the logical idea that:

… any critical examination of the network will benefit from paying attention to examples drawn from every-day experience. By placing emphasis on a critical textual analysis of particular case studies, we are beginning the work of operationalizing network as a variable and preparing it for future use.[8]

These case-studies, or real-life examples of information society at its finest or at its worst provide the insight that enables us to discover the limits that our newly-minted age has bestowed.

In an of itself, many of the key lynchpins of the Information Age are no different than those of societies long since been relegated to the archives of the world. Information has arguably been an effective currency for centuries, with the concept of compiling disparate works of information into compendiums of data something that Adam Gopnik references has been following society around since the advent of paper.[9] Lists, censuses, encyclopaedias, and epic poems have long-provided linkages of information to society, allowing for one’s knowledge to move beyond what one can individually experience. Libraries have provided physical networks that allow for information to be shared in massive quantities, and in many ways, the Internet is simply an enormous library that surrounds us.[10] Yet it is also that surrounding of information that defines the age, forming what Gopnik terms the “inverted self”. It is not the Internet itself that defines the age, but rather our states of consciousness that have been shaped and trained by the plethora of information provided.

This plethora of information comes burdened with a mythical assumption that the mass of disparate and interconnected data provides greater intelligence and inherently provides insight into the unknown. It suggests that thanks to the “Big Data” the age allows, there is an “aura of truth, objectivity, and accuracy”[11] that is unparalleled. The framework of what we consider knowledge is reframed by the quantity and access to data, changing how we know what know,[12] and how we interact with the data, the assumptions that we make, the limitations that we ignore, and the correlations whose subjective basis is ignored in favour of presumption of data’s objectivity.[13] Yet with the growth and propagation of information, data, and access to it, society has adjusted and grown to embrace it as writ and to assume that knowledge is thereby complete and encompassing.

All of these factors of our era exist merrily in our daily lives, from being able to trace ancestry through centuries or being able to Google the 1839 slang entomology of “OK” and have the answer in seconds. We form the logical expectation that nothing is beyond the reach of information society, that wondering and mystery are a thing of the past. After all, if John F. Kennedy were shot today, we would know in minutes who the culprit was and their motivation by crosschecking CCTV, satellite, digital footprints, DNA, and psychological profiling to form a complete picture of the occurrence. If an alien was thought to have landed in Roswell, New Mexico today, we would have incontrovertible and accessible proof thanks to network disruption, satellite data, iPhone video, and WikiLeaks. Mysteries that plagued societies of old would have no chance today, for total information awareness allows for no mystery.

Even the approaches to mystery prior to our Information Age were different. The expectation that we have today of knowing all was not one that was justifiable based on the limited access to information. When Amelia Earhart flew off on her global excursion in 1937, and disappeared in the Pacific with no trace, there is no evidence that the public was outraged at the lack of information surrounding her disappearance. It was a mystery, and mysteries by their virtue create theories, which merrily propagated around the incident. Yet the public outrage was over the search, not for the lack of information it produced, but for the poor handling and slow start it was handicapped by.

There is every reason to think that the search, when it was finally instituted, was conducted with energy and perseverance, but the handicap imposed by several days’ lost time was too great. … The government participated, but in such a niggardly way that [Earhart] was lost.[14]

Not only was flying still a relatively novel experience[15], but there was no expectation that all mysteries should be instantly solved, and no clear ways to solve them. It was even indicated in the July 16, 1937 Chicago Tribune that investigators were consulting a psychic, utilizing a pair of Earhart’s stockings and a handkerchief as psychic tokens.[16]

Yet today, we can find our iPhone anywhere in the world in a couple of clicks, we can see cracks in the Great Wall of China from the comfort of Google Earth, and we can spot incoming asteroids several years away in darkest space. But when a 209 foot-long wide-bodied airplane vanishes without trace somewhere between Kazakhstan and southern Australia in today’s Information Age, we feel betrayed by our Age.

…Billions of people are waiting for the kind of quick and clear resolution that we’ve come to expect in the information age — and speculating in sometimes wild ways when that resolution doesn’t come.[17]

It is extraordinary – in this age of the Internet of Things – that modern technology has so far failed to locate the Malaysian airliner, and that for up to five hours after the ATC lost contact nobody knows if it was still flying or not.[18]

We feel control in information society, thanks to the access to that knowledge, and the power it gives the individual, rather than that capacity of knowledge being withheld by society’s power structures.[19] Hans Weber, an aviation consultant interviewed about the situation succinctly put it that, “We like to think that we’re in control. That’s our culture. Not knowing means you’re not in control. That’s hard for us to take.”[20] And it’s that control, or rather the false feeling of control, that is a defining factor of Information Society, and when the realization sets in that we have lost it, confusion, conspiracy theory, and anger sets in[21]. When that expectation of control was not present, the unknown was relegated to vague categories, be in the Edge of the World that lost ships had sailed over, or the Bermuda Triangle that caused the disappearance of so many early aircraft. Yet today, we instantly dismiss such ideas as myths[22], for such peculiar entities couldn’t possible exist; we have no need for them when we have the answers to all at our fingertips.

With the disappearance of MH370, with no tangible answer to why, where, or how, the Information Age had betrayed its society, and its society was far-from pleased with the occurrence. The Malaysia Airlines MH370 Family Committee condemned the airline, government, and military, labeling them as “executioners” and accusing them of delaying and deceiving the world.[23] Relatives of passengers protested in Beijing, with one woman crying, “We’ve waited for 18 days and still, you make us wait. How long are we supposed to hang on?”[24] Another group of relatives in Beijing started a hunger strike to express their anger of the lack of information.[25] How could the unknown occur, and strikingly, how could we possibly not have answers in the immediate aftermath of an incident. The passion that the betrayals of the information society’s basic pillars exude in people is extraordinary, and in previous eras would be deemed irrational. Yet today, it is the lack of information that is considered irrational. India Ross, writing for the New Statesman identifies part of the issue, writing that, “The missing are of such interest because they embody everything that contradicts our understanding of the world while not, apparently, existing at all.”[26]

Yet when all else fails, our society is reminded that the Information Society is not encompassing. When the expectation of information does not stand up to its duty, and the frustration of the situation is let loose, we begin to fall back to the mythical roots of previous ages – ourselves betraying our Information Society just as it betrayed us. Imaginative and elaborate theories abound online forums and comment threads, ranging from a Russian conspiracy to draw attention from their endeavors in the Crimea, to a terrorist plot to convert the aircraft into a flying bomb, to a massive conspiracy involving the CIA, NSA, Chinese, Russians, British, and corporate one percent to dupe the world. Even the psychic efforts of 1937 see a return:

Ibrahim Mat Zin — who calls himself Raja Bomoh Sedunia, or “World Shaman King ” — strode into the departure area of the airport wearing a suit and tie and began his ritual: With hundreds of curious onlookers watching, he used bamboo binoculars and a fish trap to begin zeroing in on the plane’s location.[27]

We need an explanation, any explanation, as to why the unthinkable and unfathomable could occur; why the information that we so depend has gone and been replaced by a void of deep ocean.

We have become so used to the prevalence of information, surrounded by search engines, social networks, and wearable technology that our assumptions of reality have become warped. We assume that we have access to total knowledge of our planet, and considerable knowledge of our galaxy. We presume that no action is uncaptured by technologies, and that we are both the watchers and the watched through every moment of our day. We should have the answers to any mystery at our fingertips, and the knowledge that nothing disappears in today’s day and age; not an iPhone, a birth certificate, or a 600,000-pound aircraft. Our expectations of information, systematically massaged by the mass of tools that surround us, has left us vulnerable to its failings, allowing for its breakdown even without the incursion of zombies[28] or power-shifting global struggles. In an ironic twist of the basic tool of our Information Society being mocked by the case-study of MH370, at the time of writing, Malaysian Airlines’ website detailing their investigation returns a “We can’t find the page you’re looking for” response.[29]


 

[1]Cenciotti, “What We Know and What We Don’t about the Mysterious Malaysia Airlines MH370 Disappearance.

[2]Boeing International, “Commercial Airplanes Jet Prices.”

[3]Castells, “An Introduction to the Information Age,” 7.

[4]Ibid., 7–9.

[5]Ibid., 10.

[6]Ibid., 15.

[7]Levina and Kien, “Control and Fear in Post-Global Network,” 1–2.

[8]Ibid., 8.

[9]Gopnik, “How the Internet Gets inside Us.”

[10]Ibid.

[11]boyd and Crawford, “Critical Questions for Big Data,” 663.

[12]Ibid., 665.

[13]Ibid., 666–669.

[14]Chicago Tribune, “Editoral.”

[15]Dean, “Lost Planes.”

[16]Hughes, “Amelia Earhart Disappearance Similar to Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370.”

[17]Lowy and Pritchard, “Malaysian Missing Plane Mystery Bewilders, Frustrates.”

[18]Rossi, “Why Modern Technology Has Failed to Locate Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370.”

[19]Gopnik, “How the Internet Gets inside Us”; boyd and Crawford, “Critical Questions for Big Data.”

[20]Achenbach, “Lost.”

[21]Levina and Kien, “Control and Fear in Post-Global Network,” 5.

[22]Achenbach, “Lost.”

[23]Rajagopalan and Hamzah, “Search for Malaysian Jet Resumes off Australia after Weather Improves.”

[24]Ibid.

[25]Lowy and Pritchard, “Malaysian Missing Plane Mystery Bewilders, Frustrates.”

[26]Ross, “The Lost Passengers of Flight MH370.”

[27]Lowy and Pritchard, “Malaysian Missing Plane Mystery Bewilders, Frustrates.”

[28]Levina and Kien, “Control and Fear in Post-Global Network.”

[29]“MH370 Flight Incident.”