Technology cannot explain flight MH370 disappearance

Adam Vincent

Nearly four weeks ago, an airplane disappeared en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur-and found itself in the grip of the 24-hour news cycle. The initial reports of the plane’s disappearance contained few details, sparking hours of on-air speculation from networks such as CNN. Amidst the din of the media circus-that ironically itself became a subject of further media commentary-a single question rang clear: in our age of technology and innovation, how can a plane simply disappear? People threw out some truly nonsensical suggestions, including black holes and the Bermuda Triangle, while others -who presumably had a basic grasp of both astronomy and geography-settled on less glamorous explanations. Still, these thoughts offered little consolation in the face of the unresolved disappearance of 239 passengers and nearly 150 tons of flying metal. All theories aside, there is one uncomfortable truth at the heart of the issue: that the world can be unpredictable and there is no way we can always be in control. Technology gives us an exaggerated sense of agency over our own lives-and our fascination with events such as Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 is our way of coping when this illusion is shattered. Statistically, commercial airlines are the safest way to travel-which close oversight helps maintain. In order for a plane to land at a U.S. airport, it must comply with strict standards set by the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulate everything from the weight of the cockpit door to the number of onboard defibrillators.  Despite this legislation and technology, however, flight MH370’s transponder stopped working an hour into the flight, effectively rendering the plane invisible to air traffic control. Flight MH370 did not transmit any GPS data-due to current prohibitive costs, few planes do. The idea that an entire plane could disappear seems ludicrous, especially when a device as common as a smartphone can tell us our exact location. We sometimes tout technology as the end to all problems, but as a result, we overlook its limits. Technology, like its human creators, is flawed. Arthur C. Clarke once wrote that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Magic tends to scare, as Western culture’s long history of witch-hunts can show. Humans want what brings them power and fear what they cannot control. I think it’s telling, then, that when confronted with a seeming impossibility-a plane’s disappearance, for example -that some people find supernatural explanations rather than acknowledge the possibility of technological error. I think it’s also telling when people project their own fears upon the mystery. Some theorists argued the disappearance was the work of terrorists-an explanation I find not far removed from the various supernatural theories. There is no bigger cultural boogeyman than the terrorist, after all. Yet we don’t need to go halfway around the world to see what happens when technology fails. In fact, you don’t even need to leave campus. Just two months ago, the University lost power due to a particularly relentless ice storm. Within hours of the power shutting off, classes were canceled for the rest of the week. Students who were able to leave campus were told to evacuate.  The progression of emails was almost comical-they announced a delayed opening, then a snow day and then a double snow day before they finally canceled the classes for the third day in a row and encouraged students to leave. As the number of days off escalated, however, so did the fears of the student body. The novelty of the power outage quickly wore off as buildings began to cool and dorms began to darken.  The darkness, however, only served to illuminate how much we rely on structures that are run by electricity. That morning, only the Pit was open-and even then, serving a very limited menu. I was out of cash and unable to draw more because the ATMs were out of power. I couldn’t check if or when SEPTA was running because there was no WiFi. I also was unable to charge my phone’s already-low and swiftly dwindling battery.  Although I did manage to organize a trip home through the kindness of my RA (shout-out to Brendan Shea, who braved the roads and gave rides to 30th Street Station like a champ), I was struck by just how fragile my situation had been. During the year, it’s easy for us to think of ourselves as capable individuals, able to do anything or go anywhere. But that agency is only made possible by the support of myriad structures, often based on technology, that we take for granted. In reality, when these systems break down, our ability to achieve our goals is severely restricted. As unattractive as the idea may be, we’re simply not always in control. It’s easy for us, sitting in our climate-controlled buildings and nourished by genetically modified food, to forget that much of human history has been a constant struggle against natural forces.  And it’s even easier for us to overlook the fact this struggle is by no means won. In essence, we’re no different than our ancient forefathers. Our technological achievements are simply tools we use to extend our own abilities, not far removed from early hammers or knives. We search for security and try to control nature with our various creations. But, as flight MH370 and Villanova’s power outage show, this dream is futile. Attempts to fully conquer nature are nothing short of Sisyphean. In many ways, we have come close-but we will never have complete control. Flight MH370 is undoubtedly a tragedy, and I don’t mean to undermine the gravity of the situation. But at the same time, I feel it is important to recognize that technology distorts the sense of agency we have over our own lives. Only when we realize this truth can we accurately come to terms with who we are. Acknowledging the precarious nature of our existence is a scary thought-but accepting it could bring humility, inner peace and perhaps even coverage of other issues on 24-hour news channels.