The NSA, flight MH370, and the unknown

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.

* * *

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.

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Comments

  1. John Merryman says:

    The problem is far deeper than that. One of the conceptual premises of modern physics is that information cannot be destroyed, other than falling into a black hole. This is because all events exist on that fourth dimension of blocktime. As well as that everything is information in the first place, as in binary code. Anyone who dares argue otherwise is informed they operate under the illusion of naive intuition.
    I try pointing out the problem with spacetime is that time is not so much a scalar measure from one event to the next, ie. distilled from the experience of the present moving from past to future, but the changing configuration of what exists, ie. how future becomes past. To wit, the earth doesn’t travel a fourth dimension from yesterday to tomorrow, but tomorrow becomes yesterday because the earth rotates. Which makes time an effect of action, not the basis for it. Like temperature, not space. Time is to temperature what frequency is to amplitude.
    As for everything being information, energy manifests information, while information defines energy, like two sides of the coin. As energy acts, it creates and dissolves information, creating the effect of time. Energy goes from prior to succeeding forms, past to future, while forms come into being and dissolve, future to past. Energy is conserved, so information is not.
    Proof of this relationship of energy and information is that over the course of billions of years, we have evolved a central nervous system to process information and the digestive, respiratory and circulatory systems to process energy.
    Meanwhile the brain is divided into two halves. The left linear side of causality and logic is reflective of time, the sequence, while the right, intuitive, parallel processor is a scalar function, in which knowledge coalesces into a response, ie. a thermostat.
    Sorry about that rant. The world is a mess and the bullsh!t is also quite deep. We need to figure out our thought processes, if we ever expect to change our actions.