A few days ago I saw this headline: “Why don’t we just ask the NSA where the plane is?”
I expected a piece of pointed commentary or even that it came from The Onion. I assumed someone thought the international search for a missing plane should serve as a reminder that the NSA is not actually able to monitor everything happening on this planet.
It turned out, unfortunately, that the question came from a conspiracy theorist who was convinced that the only possible explanation for the NSA’s lack of helpfulness during the ongoing search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 was that the agency must be guarding some dirty secret.
For the rest of us — which is to say, people not inclined to believe that this plane was either shot down by the U.S. or that its passengers were abducted by aliens — the link to the NSA should provide a reality check.
However advanced the NSA’s capabilities are for globally tracking the movement of millions of microscopic electronic packets of information moving at close to the speed of light, it turns out that the movement of a great big hulk of metal carrying 239 people at less than 600MPH took place outside the NSA’s line of sight. (Neither is there any reason to assume that the US National Reconnaissance Office, through its satellite imagery, has secretly been the guardian of the truth about MH370.)
Those of us who spend too much time on the internet can easily succumb to a worldview within which the movement of information forms a global matrix to which seemingly everything is tied. We lose sight of the fact that what is known is dwarfed by an infinitely larger unknown.
We forget that most of what is forgotten is lost forever, and most of what is happening everywhere is never known.
I live in a region clad by vast tracts of forest where every day, trees fall unheard, unseen. Societies whose laws we may never learn govern the undergrowth. And beneath the forest, the skeletal remains of mountains whose height could never be measured have been ground into clay.
Earthquakes and volcanoes show the magnitude of events that can catch people by surprise, telling us that we don’t even know what is happening under our own feet. We don’t know what’s happening inside each cell in our body. We don’t know which neural networks are firing inside our brains right now or what these interior firework displays signify. We can’t remember everything we’ve ever said or heard. The events that form the fabric of our lives, turn out to be like glistening dew drops on a spider’s web. They disappear under the glare of a rising sun, never to be seen again.
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The NSA and Google are co-conspirators, not in a formal sense, but in as much as they are jointly invested in the prevailing delusion of this age: that it is possible to know everything.
For the NSA, this fantasy is a tool for manipulating Congress — it implies that the only real obstacle to perfect security is adequate funding.
For Google, its mission to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” implies we live in a world governed by information (and Google’s beneficent hand) and that this information truly encompasses the world — and that its uncharted territories will soon be mapped.
This worldview not only fails to recognize the incomprehensible vastness of the unknown, but it also reinforces a view of human agency that makes us imagine we have the power to control all things.
Instead of seeing an issue like climate change as a consequence of our reckless behavior, which is to say, seeing it as an industrially triggered planetary convulsion, we risk seeing it as a technical problem which sooner or later is bound to yield to a technical solution.
But to see the true relationship between the known and the unknown is not only a vital form of realism; it’s also the only way of holding human grandiosity in check.
We do not live in a world that calls to be mastered; it demands to be met with humility. The Earth can survive without us, but we can’t survive without this planet. Only by recognizing that we are not on the brink of becoming all-seeing gods can we see our real place in the scheme of things.