The Indian Ocean is not the biggest ocean on the planet, or even the second-biggest. And yet a modern passenger jet equipped with the latest communications technology can vanish into it, with any trace eluding searchers for weeks, if not forever. The tragedy of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and the mystery of its disappearance are powerful reminders that there are vast stretches of this planet beyond our knowledge and our gaze.
Herman Melville called it “the horrors of the half-known life” in Moby-Dick. Our lives are insular, he said, little Tahitis of the soul surrounded by the “appalling ocean.” Our insularity is more apparent than ever, thanks to technology that links us to each other constantly, to urbanization, and to our increasing disengagement with the natural world. How could it be possible, we ask ourselves, in an era when the number of active cellphones equals the planet’s population, where tweets and e-mails last forever and cameras capture our comings and goings 24/7, that a 200-foot-long jet carrying 239 passenger and crew can vanish from the grid?
Melville, who worked on an American whaler in the 1800s, saw the scale of the sea for himself, and it left him in awe. Sailors who have navigated the uncharted waters of the southern Indian Ocean know how vast the search area for the missing jet is, how currents can carry objects off in multiple directions, and how colossal waves and unremitting winds can scatter debris into insignificance. “God keep thee!” he wrote. “Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!”
We can’t stay home any more, and we don’t need to. Global air travel is an essential part of our interconnectedness. It makes the planet smaller and safer. Any tragic incident involving a passenger jet is a rarity; billions of passengers arrive at their destinations every year suffering no more than the inconvenience of a late takeoff and a lack of legroom. We sail over the oceans dozing at 35,000 feet. But there is so much more out there, and it is so much more powerful than us.