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Lost in Transmission

I just can’t get over it. There has been a plane missing for twelve days. And that last blip of the radar has been heard around the world.

Possible debris, satellite image from Chinese Defense Ministry

Possible debris, later ruled out
satellite image from Chinese Defense Ministry

I know random world events aren’t my usual cup of tea on here, but it can’t be helped. And after reading articles from all over the communicationsphere, I’m profoundly freaked out. First there was a missing plane with no distress signal, sign of bad weather, or mechanical trouble. Then some mention of debris in the Pacific. Now the media has latched onto the eerie lack of passengers’ cell phone activity. The fact-proven details of the flight are few: on March 8th, Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, with 239 lives on board, lost contact. The plane took off east towards Beijing, the transponder was turned off, the plane was then tracked completely changing course, and eventually was lost even to military radar over the Indian Ocean. But the question still bouncing around my head was one of the first, “Why did the transponder stop transmitting?

An unsettling query with only a few answers, the most common being a hijacking. Which, considering the alternative of a Lost-esque crash on a magically moving island-creature-afterlife deal, seems frighteningly likely. I could wax paranoid for hours of conspiracy theorizing, but CNN is the one paid to do that. So I’ll move on. What I would like to know instead, dearest FAA and all post-9/11 flight codemakers, is this: not why, but how is it POSSIBLE for a transmitter to stop working? Not meteorites, engine explosion, or someone actually turning it off– I mean how is it that the transmitters were constructed in a way that allows them to ever turn off in the first place?

My new housemate’s phone was stolen when she was moving her stuff in this past weekend. After spending the day refreshing Verizon’s GPS Locator page, she was at her wits’ end. I thought the entire point of having GPS technology in my phone was for this exact reason. If some delinquent jacks my phone, I want to be able to lojack their ass. My house was once broken into, and the cops eventually found the kid by tracing the IP address of the stolen X-Box he was playing. So how can the Apple Geniuses not turn on an internal GPS trigger and find my roommate’s phone? Answer: the doorstop who stole it just turned off her phone. Next question: why hasn’t Apple created a GPS locator that intrinsically cannot be disabled by hooligans simply turning it off?

We're in an age of color film, for fuckssake.

We’re in an age of pocket-sized computers, not B&W film!

In a much grander and critical scale, how can it be that a Boeing 777 with hundreds of lives on board has disappeared? This isn’t 1937, and science has come a long way since Amelia and her Lockheed Electra went missing. If we had the technology for my mom to track me down via cellphone GPS at a high school party ten years ago, then the joined forces of global intelligence– the CIA, NSA, Interpol, Chinese intelligence, and God knows what other cloak-and-dagger shit that goes on out there– should be able to locate one rather large plane.

Apparently we missed the lesson with Flight 447. It has been five years since they went down in the first “mysterious tragedy”, à la Titanic hubris. Yet, we still did not adjust and figure a better way to track our metal birds. Do you know how far technology has come just in the past decade? The iPad was invented, with a new one each year. The iPhone 4, now -5, birthed Siri. Our phones tell jokes. Google is taking us further into Jetsons’ territory with their driverless car and Google Glass, a undeniably disturbing-yet-incredible spyware eyewear that Googles someone you look at by facial recognition. In 2009, as Flight 447 crashed, the NSA was kick starting a new program: developing the ability to record every cell phone conversation in a country for an entire month. As of yesterday, reports claim success. And as of today, the fates of 239 people on Flight 370 are still a mystery. You would think Apple, Google, or the NSA would have spent one day configuring a solution to losing an entire plane. Maybe hidden ones even the pilots cannot find and disable?

But they haven’t. When I look into the post-9/11 flight regulations and practices, they are mostly human-threat-based. Sky marshalls, TSA monsters, and no-fly lists. Invasive body searches toeing borderline rape. I remember the conversation on the black box location and security, and reinforced cockpits. So, in an age where we can pick up a phone to call the other side of the world, tin boxes orbiting space, and 20,000 leagues under the sea, I do have one answer. It hasn’t occurred to anyone to install GPS locators in every single plane as a regulation safety standard.

The biggest difference between Flights 447 and 370 is that one simply crashed. If today’s reports of debris turn out true, and MH370 crashed as well, there is still the matter of human action to turn off the transponder and turn the plane completely around. What this says to me: even if MH370 crashed somewhere, it offers a new option to terrorists. The fear is building and conspiracy theories run rampant. My friend Sally thinks it’s the North Koreans, and Abigail keeps talking about episodes of 24. Junior just gets quiet. Paranoia abounds. There were a lot of changes made, once 9/11 introduced the concept of weaponized planes. Is this the next step? Are we being introduced to an even deeper level of plane weaponization? Up until now, it has only occurred to us that, if a plane were hijacked for terroristic purposes, then naturally it would be used immediately while in-air. Because it would be impossible for terrorists to steal an entire damn plane to literally “save for later”. Right?

Evidently not.

Regardless of the plot, this story has a sad ending. If it eventually comes to light that Flight 370 has been lost at sea, it is already sure to be mourned worldwide. Loved ones and strangers alike have flooded Kuala Lumpur, Beijing, and the blogosphere with their keening cries. Even if we never learn of their fate, 239 people have disappeared from their lives, families, and world.  Frightfully, without a trace more than a last radar blip, the world wonders for lack of answers. We are left in a void of mystery, like many tragedies throughout time, asking ‘why?’, ‘what happened?’, ‘where are you?’ The only record in place of goodbye is the last transmission from the co-pilot, before the transponder was switched off: “All right, good night.”

What I would like to end with is not a question, but a command. To the combined scientific and intelligence communities: get your shit together. Stop creating another damn smartphone or bomb for one day– one single day– and figure out the how, where, and what of GPS locators on every plane. Chat with the FAA and airlines, they’ll be down with this. Work together; please. We have thousands of people hurtling through the air in tin cans every second; how about we make it so their families can properly grieve, in case one fails. Or worse, for when the really bad guys are one day as smart as you and start stealing them.

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My thoughts and heart are with the loved ones, the real reason Flight 370 won’t leave my head.

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