Flight 370 And Our Unsolved Mystery Obsession

The Daily Beast interviewed me about love-hate relationship with surveillance when our expectations about how its supposed to work aren’t met.

“I think especially in this case we have a lot of expectations about how surveillance and tracking of international air traffic is supposed to work. There are a lot of ways in which the things we have taken for granted failed,” says Sara M. Watson, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. “There’s the disconnect from what we expect to happen and what is happening.” Read more.

I was struck by this revelation in the NYTimes coverage: “Using a system that looks for flashes around the world, the Pentagon reviewed preliminary surveillance data from the area where the plane disappeared and saw no evidence of an explosion, said an American government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the subject matter is classified.” Whoa, there’s a system for detecting flashes around the world? Of course the Pentagon has a system for detecting flashes around the world.

What didn’t make the cut is the idea that we have expectations about how plane and travel security and surveillance are supposed to work because they are out in the open. Interpol is supposed to stop people from getting on planes with stolen passports. Security theater exists to develop those expectations. But we didn’t have expectations about the extent of civilian surveillance in all the NSA revelations because it was all covert, and we never bought into it.

As for our obsession with disappearance stories in a connected age, I believe the fascination stems from the drama of getting lost or going missing. Missed connections and miscommunication are dramatic plot devices, and most of that drama is lost with constant connectivity. That’s what makes things going completely off the grid now very compelling (and incidentally why contemporary literature hasn’t done a great job of integrating communications technologies).