The unsettling truths behind why we’re obsessed with a missing airplane

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Beyond simple curiosity, there are deep-seated, primal reasons we are so obsessed with the conspiracy theories surrounding missing Malaysian Flight 370.

At least, that’s what my latest column for The Week argues. As I write,

“It’s hard to believe that in 2014 we cannot find a missing airplane. This goes against everything we’ve been led to believe about our shrinking world, about Big Brother’s ability to track us every second of the day (they may invade our privacy, but at least they keep us safe!), and about a culture that believes we are all, to some degree or another, protected.”

My hypothesis is that maybe we need conspiracy theories to help process these mysteries, because even the most disturbing examples of speculation are less frightening than the unsettling truth that we live in a world beyond our control or comprehension — a world where planes can still just disappear without a trace.

In this regard, maybe telling ourselves these stories — the bogeyman stories we’ve been telling each other around the campfire for thousands of years — ironically comforts us.

These days, of course, we’re not gathered around a campfire, but instead, huddled around televisions and computers and smart phones.  The rise of cable TV and the internet means that speculation and theories can go viral almost instantly. This is a huge change, and not just in comparison to ancient times. Just a few short years ago, there were only three major networks (and a few large newspapers of consequence). In that environment, information was much more easily filtered.

This was good and bad. Garbage in, garbage out. Remember the wrongly-accused Olympic bombing suspect? — or, more recently, the student wrongly tied to the Boston bombings by some “amateur sleuths” on Reddit? These stories can have serious consequences. (On the other hand, we have positive examples of the wisdom of crowds helping solve mysteries and correct mistakes — sometimes mistakes made by the mainstream media; who could forget Rathergate?)

For better or worse, speculation travels faster than ever. Maybe that’s cathartic, inasmuch as it allows the crackpots to blow of some steam. Or maybe it’s damaging to the families of victims (some of whom are possibly heroes who are being posthumously libeled on TV.) Or maybe it’s both.

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There is one more interesting thing about this story worth mentioning, and that is that it has had legs. Sometimes art imitates life, but a colleague points out to me that the way this thing is playing out seems to contradict a dialogue that takes place in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, So Long , and Thanks for All the Fish, where they are trying to figure out what happened to the dolphins.

“I just wanted to find out something about the dolphins,” Murray says.

“No story. Last year’s news. Forget ’em. They’re gone,” answers Arthur, before adding:

“Listen, no one will touch it. You can’t sustain a story, you know, when the only news is the continuing absence of whatever the story’s about. Not our territory anyway, try the Sundays. Maybe they’ll run a little `Whatever Happened to ‘Whatever Happened to the Dolphins'” story in a couple of years, around August. But what’s anybody going to do now? ‘Dolphins still gone’? ‘Continuing Dolphin Absence’? ‘Dolphins — Further Days Without Them’? The story dies, Arthur. It lies down and kicks its little feet in the air and presently goes to the great golden spike in the sky, my old fruitbat.”

At some point, the missing plane might be like the missing dolphins — no longer newsworthy. But for now, at least, it’s good for business — as CNN’s surging ratings can attest.