Aside from its tragic nature and its apparent media value as a mystery greater than who will be the Next American Idol, the apparent disappearance of flight 370 has another meaning, I think, that has been entirely missed as far as I can tell.
The other day I was having a conversation with some colleagues, which led to someone quoting Stallman, which in turn led to noting that Stallman refuses to use a smart phone (or any cell phone, perhaps, can’t remember) because of the danger of being constantly tracked by the authorities. I note that my “smart phone” is dumb as a brick. Whenever I need it to know where the heck I am so it can tell me which way to go, it seems to say “Huh? What? WTF am I?” more often than not. If the authorities are tracking me based on my smart phone, the authorities are badly misinformed. Nonetheless, Stallman is right, this sort of technology is potentially privacy-threatening. But it may be that his thoughts are ahead of his time. Based on my own experience, I’m not sure that anyone is figuring out where I am because I have a smart phone.
(I have noticed the occasional ad show up on Facebook related to something I had recently walked by, but I’m sure I’m being paranoid. Right?)
Several years ago the Soviet Union stood as the world’s largest empire ever, more or less. It included in it’s grasp the majority of of Europe and about half of the rest of the world, plus or minus ambiguous associations with China by various states. Then one day, in a blinding moment of history, the Soviet Union collapsed, the Berlin Wall fell, and Eastern Europe was freed from its grey oppression. Remember that?
Of course, it was not all at once, but nearly so in historical terms. Archaeologically it would look like a discontinuous horizon of concrete rubble containing the occasional Lenin fragment separating material cultures that look similar but that have some important differences. You would not see the individual events at all.
But somewhere in there with all that wall knocking over and statue pulling down and Rose Revolutions and stuff there occurred a single event, before the rest of the events happened, that on one hand was singularly insignificant and on the other hand the most important thing that ever happened in history, and that event was much like the unexplained disappearance of Flight 370.
Surely you have guessed by now the event to which I refer. Mathias Rust’s epic journey.
On May 28, 1987, Rust flew his small single engine plane from Germany to a point next to Red Square, a bit down the street from The Kremlin, via Iceland and Finland. Nobody stopped him. He was noticed here and there but never challenged. Basically, Mathais Rust revealed an amazing truth: You can fly a small air craft from The West to The Kremlin, no problem! The emperor has no clothes, the empire has no air defense. It wasn’t long after Mathias Rust landed in Moscow that all the things we think of as the end of the Cold War happened. They happened for a lot of reasons, but Mathias Rust was far more than a straw placed at just the right moment on the camels’ back. More like a Cessna 172 landing on a bear’s back.
A Boeing 777 is big. One went missing in a heavily populated part of the world with a history of tension and warfare. I don’t expect Southeast Asia to have the same exact level of radar coverage as other parts of the world, but I do expect it to be difficult to have a Boeing 777 go totally missing there. I mean, after all, this is not Subsaharan Africa. Years ago, when I was actively working in Subsaharan Africa, I was contacted by an intelligence agency. They had the zany idea that I might know where a Boeing 737 they had lost track of might be. They were watching it, it was privately owned and being used for … various things, apparently … and one day the guy who checks on these sorts of things at a particular airport went to look, just routine, to make sure the Boeing 737 was in the same place it had been put after landing the night before and the damn thing was gone. It was so missing that they had stooped to asking anthropologists if they had seen the plane around anywhere. But that was then, and there, and this is now, and elsewhere.
Personally, I’m not too surprised this could happen, but the average person on the internet should be, as far as I can tell. Why, for example, does Edward Snowden have nothing to say about this? If the NSA and all those other agencies are able to track our every move, how can a Jumbo Jet vanish without a trace? (I quickly note: They’ll probably find it, but it is too late for maintaining any faith in The Watchers. If it is located now it will be bumbled upon, not found because someone, somewhere, knows where everything and everyone is.)
Flight 370 tells us that they don’t know everything, they being, well, you know. They can’t do everything. Not only are you and I not being tracked, but clumps of hundreds of people all together including engineers traveling abroad, people without passports and, for chrissakes, Chinese People, are able to vanish from the face of the Earth without any agency or government being able to simply point and say “Oh, they’re right there, plus or minus a few hundred meters. We know where everyone is.” Because they can’t do that. They don’t have the technology, the resources, the time, or the inclination. And, most important of all: It turns out that Tom Clancey’s novels are fiction!
So, how do you hide a Boeing 777 from the US’s NSA, Chinese Military and Intelligence, and the intelligence and military communities of all the other countries? You don’t. They don’t know where it is already. Whatever you were thinking the Man was capable of, think again. Flight 370 shows us that the capabilities of Big Brother are highly exaggerated.