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Flight 370 & the terror of being off the grid

March 14: How can a commercial airliner go missing? How, in this hyperconnected age, could it vanish from the earth, apparently without trace, eluding a nearly weeklong search involving more than a dozen governments and some of the world’s most advanced surveillance technology?

In addition to the familiar horror and sadness over a catastrophe of modern aviation, the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 comes freighted with an unusual terror — the surprise that in our digitally monitored era, people and objects can still somehow vanish.

The disappearance stands in stark contrast to the hallmark sensation of our time, the certainty that we’re all being constantly tracked and that, for better or worse, we’re strapped to the grid, never out of touch.

It turns out that’s not true. There are places in this world that are still beyond the grid.

And it reminds us — or, at any rate, it reminds me — that as much as we lament constant tracking, there is often something deeply comforting in having one’s location pinned to a map.

This week aviation experts have poured out to explain what, in 2014, seems unfathomable. When you’re high in the air over the ocean, you may be flying in a blind spot, one of the few places on the planet where you’re not being watched.

Planes over the ocean are beyond the range of radar; while their position can be tracked by an on-board device called a transponder, it can malfunction or be shut off by the pilot. There’s no Wi-Fi or cell service over the deep ocean. Passengers’ cellphones wouldn’t work, and their devices would have no Internet connection to report their positions to far-off data centres.

An airliner over the ocean is untethered from the map. If something goes wrong, it can simply vanish from the world’s collective view.

I’ve flown internationally a handful of times in the last few years, and I’ve thought about this disconnectedness every time — at first with fear, then, as the flight proceeds, with increasing glee. I’m sure you recognise this feeling. There’s a new-age comfort in pulling yourself away, in finding recluse from the distracting din of connectedness.

When your boss can’t message you, when you’re technically prevented from sharing every experience with the world, you’re finally free to experience life as one suspects it should be experienced — unmediated, unshared, free from the glare of a screen. It’s why Internet-free zones have lately become a kind of hipster fad.

In reality, though, the story is more complicated. You say you hate to be tracked. Yet every day, with every map search and request to Find My Phone, you invite a global network of satellites and servers to pinpoint your position on this planet. You do so because it’s convenient, but also because you take comfort in electronic connections because seeing your child on a map as he walks to school offers some reassurance that he’s OK.

When something goes wrong, nowadays, one’s first instinct is to check in by text, on social networks, or through some other digital smoke flare. According to stories in the Chinese press, family members of the passengers of Flight 370 had the same instinct. They’ve been calling and messaging their loved ones’ phones throughout the week.

When they call, they hear a ringing tone, giving many hope that passengers’ phones are still connected to the grid and consequently could be tracked by officials. (Experts say the ringing doesn’t mean the phones are still working.)

If it sounds crazy that we keep using our smartphones and tablets despite all we now know about how vulnerable they make us to being monitored by the government and corporations, this is the explanation.

At a most basic level, these devices keep us tethered to one another and we’re willing to make terrific trade-offs in privacy and sanity just to keep that connection. Because when the connection is lost, it’s terrifying.

 
 
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