The Obsession With Flight 370

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Before anyone jumps to the conclusion that I am insensitive to the fate of the 239 persons aboard Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, and to their families and friends, let me assure you that I empathize as much as others with the suffering inflicted upon these people. But there is something more significant about the presumed deaths of these 239 persons.

For a month, the mainstream media, government officials, and seemingly millions of other individuals, have been obsessed with finding not only the plane, but the explanation for its disappearance. Why such a highly energized interest? Is it the destiny of the 239 persons aboard the flight? During the same time period that this flight has been missing, some 682 military veterans committed suicide, a figure more than two-and-one-half times the numbers aboard this airliner. There have been prior plane crashes that claimed more victims, but without the preoccupation attending this one. Earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and other natural events have taken more lives but, being “natural” occurrences, are understood to be part of the uncertainties that attend life on our turbulent spaceship. Wars have led to the deaths of millions of equally innocent men, women, and children, but most of us have internalized the insane proposition that wars are essential features of “civilization.” We are supposed to have wars, they are what make us “exceptional!”

The explanation for our obsession with Flight 370 can be found, I suspect, deep within our individual and collective psyches. You may recall The Twilight Zone episode in which an airliner full of passengers finds itself trapped in some fourth-dimension above New York City. The pilots try desperately to land the plane, only to discover that the city below them has no present existence, being as it was decades earlier. We are asked to imagine ourselves in such a dire situation, and to listen for the endless sounds of engines as those aboard this plane seek to overcome their apparent fate.

In Flight 370, reality has been imitating art. The reason this ongoing mystery so absorbs us is to be found, I believe, in the challenge it poses to the metaphysical base of our culture, which has little tolerance for mystery. We pay scant attention to the poets, artists, composers, story-tellers, humorists, and others whose creative works originate from the emotional, intuitive, and speculative part of the brain. In the field of education – with its outrageous tuitions and a fixation on career training – students who major in art, philosophy, history, or music are looked upon, by many, as wasting their time and money. The real sciences, engineering, business administration, or other studies that hold the promise of financially-rewarding careers, prepare students for what is termed “the real world.”

Western society has long been dominated by what is called a technological imperative, wherein our lives are subservient not only to technology, but to its corporate-state owners and managers. Jacques Ellul, Marshall McLuhan, C.S. Lewis, and Colin Wilson, have been among the more articulate observers of this character. In Ellul’s words: “Modern technology has become a total phenomenon for civilization, the defining force of a new social order in which efficiency is no longer an option but a necessity imposed on all human activity.” This is what underlies the destructive nature of institutions, a topic I explored in my Calculated Chaos book. We invent tools and systems that benefit us, but then make the mistake of treating such creations as ends in themselves, making our lives subject to the presumed superiority of purpose of what our minds have created! McLuhan stated it this way: “We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”

As the systems we have created demonstrate their capacity to satisfy our expectations, we often seek to make them permanent features in our lives; we begin to worship them. It is at this point that institutionalism arises. We identify ourselves with them, a practice that provides our lives with meaning and purpose and, in so doing, subordinates us to institutional abstractions. We pledge to such bodies “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor,” which includes our willingness to kill and to die on their behalf; to be enslaved to a taxation system without limits; and to be obedient to the direction of those agencies which, by virtue of their preeminence over us have become “too big to fail.”

How does this relate to Flight 370?  A culture that is both defined and dominated by technology, is grounded in such traits as linear thinking, materialism, quantitative analysis, and mechanistic processes. Such attributes of conscious intelligence have allowed our species to invent, produce, and utilize tools as the most effective means of overcoming our more limited physical capacities for survival. Modern culture is decidedly of a technological nature. At the risk of over-simplification, and knowing that there is no universally accepted definition of the word, technology can be thought of in terms of the physical forms, tools, weapons, machinery, and formal organizational structures, that allow us to manipulate and control conditions through which we are able to function in a material world. From early axes and the wheel, to modern computerized systems, mankind has distinguished itself from other species and measured its accomplishments vis-à-vis our ancestors, by the ability to create “things” that help us produce desired outcomes in our lives.

Identifying ourselves with technologically-oriented institutions leads us to think of ourselves in robotic, mechanistic, machine-like ways. We pride ourselves on being thought of as “assets” or “resources” in our community; we feel under “pressure,” or experience “burnout”; and admit to being “turned on” or “turned off” by others. We get our “wires crossed,” “run out of gas,” or “blow a fuse” when things do not go right for us. We daily use these and other mechanistic references to express our sense of self. So invested are we in our robotic image of ourselves that we find it easy to accept the idea that we have no control over our lives and, therefore, no responsibility for our actions. On the day of the recent shootings at Ft. Hood, one woman soldier declared that the man who had shot all the others was “not to blame,” that the responsibility was with some faceless “others.”

At the core of a technologically-centered culture is an emphasis on control. Unlike free-willed individuals, machinery must be subject to control, which is to reside in those who manage the technically-driven systems. It is not just the mechanisms that require direction on behalf of institutional ends, but the human beings who will be “employed” and “used” on behalf of such purposes. But if the cooperation of men and women is to be secured, they must have confidence in the capacities not only of institutional officials, but of the technologies, to achieve the expected results. Without the assurance of control, people will be no more inclined to trust in technological systems than they would in earthquakes, tornadoes, or hurricanes.

The confidence men and women will have in the efficacy of such systems will depend on the institutional establishment controlling the information available to the general public. If people have information presented to them that differs from the stated causes, consequences, and stated interests served by collective action, they will be more inclined to doubt, or even reject, establishment policies or actions. It is this institutional need for a monopoly on ideas and information that has fueled heresy trials, book-burnings, and other forms of censorship of alternative opinions. It is also what has made establishment pariahs of the Chelsea Mannings, Ed Snowdens, Julian Assanges, Glenn Greenwalds, and others who dared challenge the information monopolists. That the state wants exclusive control over facts relating to its activities while, at the same time, insisting upon surveillance of your most private communications, behavior, and records, should be enough to convince any thoughtful person of the self-serving nature of all political systems. Corporate-state ownership of the lives of mankind depends upon the institutional order controlling the content of people’s thinking, a function served by government schools, the mainstream media, and the maintenance of a gullible public.

But the technologies, themselves, must also be subject to the control – or the appearance of control – of the institutional system. Machines that operate on their own, without human direction or purpose, are likely to be looked upon as Frankenstein monsters loosed upon mankind. Machines often fail us: they may explode, collapse, disintegrate, or not function at all. Accidents at nuclear-power facilities, and the problems associated with the disposal of deadly radioactive wastes, have greatly reduced public faith in this form of technology. The institutional order has incorporated this tendency for technical failure into its weltanschauung not only by the creation of “backup” systems but, when failure occurs without immediate explanation, by reciting the technological mantra that is designed to assure the faithful that it is still under control: “we will find out what went wrong and fix it, so that this doesn’t happen again.”

Sophisticated aircraft, capable of carrying hundreds of passengers to virtually any place on the planet, have been designed and built. They operate under a wide-range of institutionalized controls, including government approval of designs, air-traffic control systems, computerized and radar equipment, even TSA gropings. When these mechanisms of formal control fail – as they did on a U.S. Airways flight that landed in the Hudson River a few years ago – intelligent, skilled individuals (e.g., Chesley Sullenberger) are sometimes available to substitute their own control and avoid catastrophe.

Even when plane crashes do occur, other control systems (e.g., flight recorders, radar, transponders, space satellites, “black boxes”) are available to inform “us” what went wrong, and allow “experts” to repair the problem so that “it doesn’t happen again.” This illusion of systemic control is enough to ease doubts and reassure the public in the technological faith.

But what happens when such a massive piece of machinery simply disappears, and the lives of 239 people are left in existential limbo, and the extended control devices cannot be located? If this plane had crashed shortly after takeoff, killing all aboard, and the wreckage was immediately found, the event would have quietly receded into the collective memory-hole, to be replaced by another string of “breaking news” reports. But to have the plane disappear without any record or evidence of the cause, generates questions – and doubts – about the infallibility of control systems unable to deliver on their promises. The institutional order can absorb an occasional plane crash when such an accident is empirically explainable, and the appearance of control is maintained.

For decades, I have urged people to familiarize themselves with the study of chaos and complexity, for they illustrate why efforts to predict and control outcomes in complex systems will fail, an effect of which will be to erode the foundations of societies operating on the illusion that centralized, coercive authority can produce a stable social order. As technology expands its powers, it also increases its capacities to generate more unforeseen consequences. As the study of chaos informs us, the unintended result is to introduce more complexity and uncertainty into human affairs, thus making our world even more unpredictable.

The computer – once thought to be the harbinger of the most pervasive, authoritarian state – has proven to be a liberating influence for individuals, particularly in the realm of access to, and production of information. Nor should we forget that the technology of the Internet was created by the institutional order, in an effort to protect communications amongst the ruling agencies. Computerized systems are now turning against their creators, with members of the ruling elites demanding “gatekeepers” for the Internet and the licensing of journalists.

For the corporate-state system to continue exercising its powers over the rest of us, it must have and maintain the appearance of being in control of whatever is essential to its decision-making. This includes, among others, economic and social behavior, the thinking of those subject to its rule, nature and the climate, and the technologies through which life is conducted. As long as a giant airliner remains missing, with no evidence of its whereabouts, fate, or causal factors relating to it, the establishment is not in control of the complexity it presumes to govern. This is why the story continues to dominate news channels. Whether or not Flight 370 is ever found, the damage done to the illusions of control upon which centralized authority is based will begin to find expression in other areas of human endeavor.

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