How Malaysia Airlines Flight 370's Disappearance Proved The Age of Information Doesn't Know What To Do With No Information
On Saturday, somewhere between Malaysia and China, a Boeing 777 airplane veered off course and disappeared. This much we know. What happened next to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has become an obsessive point of conversation, coverage, and speculation: Was it a hijacking? A pilot suicide? A crash into the ocean? In a news era predicated on whose coverage can be the quickest, the most accurate, and the most viewed, one thing is clear: When we're faced with an utter lack of information, we don't know what to do with it.
“We’ve made no progress," an air traffic controller at Malaysia's aviation department told TIME Tuesday. "We don’t have a clue." That's been the overlying view of international authorities in the near-week that they've been searching, but you wouldn't know that from the news: The live blogs; the possibilities that have been repeatedly floated, dismissed, re-proposed and dismissed again — like the "terrorist attack" claim, which never appeared very likely.
This speaks to the nature of ever-evolving online media, which now more than ever is competing to be the first and the best to share information. If there isn't any information, at least none tangible or concrete, then speculation will do.
More so than any other international event in recent history, there's been no firm evidence available on which the press can report. Regardless, the missing plane has managed to produce an endless stream of "news": The oil slicks that could have possibly been from the plane, but weren't. The satellite images that could have been debris from the plane, but also apparently weren't. The possibility that the plane flew for hours off-course, which Malaysian officials stridently deny. The international tensions sparked by the incident; the oil rig worker who wrote that he saw a crash; the different areas in which authorities believe the plane crashed. And so on.
The very existence of so many conflicting reports implies that we have nil concrete evidence or hypothesis about the crash. But there is one likely, tragic, explanation: Major commercial flights, like Air France's Flight 447 in 2009, were also considered missing until a wreckage was found.
On June 1, 2009, Flight 447 went missing; by June 2, it was widely assumed that there had been a crash and no survivors. When then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy met families later on June 1, he told them to expect the worst. "I told them the truth," Sarkozy said, according to the Associated Press. "The prospects of finding survivors are very small." He added that finding the plane would be "very difficult," because the search zone "is immense."
Of course, Flight 447 was different; by June 3, 2009, the Air France plane's wreckage had been spotted, and the jet was confirmed to have crashed. But the initial disappearance was identical to Flight 370's — it's the reaction to it that's been different.
Now, it's been the better part of a week since Flight 370 disappeared, which lends more confusion to the fact that we haven't come across any evidence — but, with each day, it seems less likely that there will be any survivors from Flight 370. And, of course, we can't say that the Internet is necessarily false or speculative, let alone bad: After all, millions of people have been using the Web to exhaustively scan satellite images to try and find a wreckage, or evidence of a crash — a testament to the power of the Internet.
Still, the disappearance of Flight 370 has made it clearer than ever that, as a platform, the Web encourages and proliferates the spread of information wherever it's available, even in crumbs. Even when it's not there at all.