Jen Gerson is a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail.
It was one of the phrases used to describe the late OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush’s mission to make the deepest-sea exploration more accessible that has haunted me since the Titan imploded near the remains of the Titanic. In an interview with People Magazine, one of Mr. Rush’s friends said: “He wanted to democratize the sea.”
What a fine turn of words. How romantic. How perfectly crafted to ennoble the whole enterprise.
Those of us less inclined toward such gentle conventions might have phrased it differently: Mr. Rush didn’t want to democratize the sea, he wanted to commercialize the dead.
The CEO, who unfortunately died onboard his own creation, seemed to be living a Jacques Cousteau fantasy, subsidizing the creation of his own submersible by luring billionaires eager to flip bunny ears at a famous – and famously inaccessible – underwater tomb.
His sub had not been certified by any independent safety organization. It was made with a composite that numerous experts had warned was likely to fail; it was outfitted with kit from a camping store, and it was piloted by a modified game controller.
Is there any detail of this disaster that illustrates its folly more effectively than that of the joystick? Picture Mr. Rush, sadly oblivious to the finality of real-world death, with his physical connection to the harshest and most inhospitable landscape on Earth, a Logitech G F710 Wireless Gamepad.
Democracy is such a loaded term that when we hear it, we rarely stop to think: “Okay, but why?” Why would it be a good thing to make deep sea adventure as accessible to the masses as a mid-tier cruise?
The entirety of the Titanic wreck has already been captured in full 3D, for anyone who cares enough to find it. What is the rationale for amateur exploration of this type?
Further, there are avenues for deep sea exploration for those called to the sea by the whims of science or passion. These are not democratic means, but rather meritocratic ones. Study deep-sea science in university, take up a course of specialized engineering, or join the military. Filmmaker James Cameron famously visited the wreck 33 times – and had a few close calls himself.
“The Titanic was the Mount Everest of shipwrecks … I said, ‘I’ll make a Hollywood movie to pay for an expedition and do the same thing.’ I loved that first taste, and I wanted more,” he recently told CNN.
I won’t deny there are scientific and cultural insights to be gained from visiting the bottom of the ocean. I am just not convinced that these benefits are so significant that they outweigh the risks of cowboying the trip.
The Titan’s defenders may compare Mr. Rush’s vision to space travel. That, too, involves packing humans into a tiny air-tight tube and shooting them into an environment inhospitable to life. Almost 20 people have died in space, to date.
But space travel enjoys the weight of advantage against which the risks of these endeavours must hang. In the very long term, humanity must go to space in order to assure its own long-term survival – given the fragility of Earth, colonies off this rock are needed to boost our odds. One of the key steps toward making that a reality is the establishment of commercial rocket facilities, and eventually of space tourism. As more ordinary people are able to make the trip, the innovations will compound, and the costs will come down.
But there is no analogous argument with the deep sea. No one is colonizing the Mariana Trench.
So the comparison lies not with space travel, but rather with, as Mr. Cameron himself put it: Everest.
Climbing the world’s largest mountain may have once possessed some scientific or cultural merit, but no more. Now, Everest is tourism. It’s an industry, accessible to anybody wealthy and able-bodied enough to hire a sherpa to make it to the top and back without dying. But many do die there, their bodies left on the mountain to decay, and for what? Modern adventurers aren’t Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. How many bucket listers are even passionate about mountaineering? No one is charting a new path, nor contributing to human advancement by climbing that hill in 2023. Summiting Everest is a status flex for the rich and the insecure. Nothing more.
That is democratization.
And that’s the model Titan tried to replicate: a thrilling tourist trap for those wealthy and fit enough to take a selfie at a grave through a porthole.