March 13, 2014

A Meditation on the Crowdsourcing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

Magazine what happened to air france flight 447

Do you remember this quiet and soulful cover of the NYT Magazine capturing the disappearance of Air France Flight 447? The Airbus, with 216 passengers and 12 crew members aboard, disappeared on June 1st, 2009 en route from Rio to Paris. Flight 447 has been mentioned frequently this week in connection with the disappearance Saturday of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

The magazine cover came to mind today as I was reading about the crowdsourcing project organized by satellite company, Digital Globe on the Tomnod platform, and the citizens everywhere being “digi-deputized” to help locate the plane. (Think about a few strangers at the mall jumping up to help you search for your fallen contact lens, then multiply that by thousands equipped with miles of satellite visuals.)

In the five years since 447 went down, what changes technology has brought to our social world. It’s a comfort and an inspiration to imagine thousands of strangers, with no connection at all, beyond their shared humanity, joining the search for the missing jumbo jet by way of these powerful eyes in the sky and the social wonders of the web. The capability to spot search the ocean represents a godsend, too, if one was ever in a situation like the one encountered by Robert Redford’s character in last year’s “All is Lost.”

In light of the Digital Globe project, the Times cover seems almost quaint. (Rather than muse on the vast expanse, for example, one might be more drawn to the possibility of something on the surface and a slight wake behind it in that lower left corner.) Given our awesome connectivity and the enhanced visibility of just about every square inch, the Tomnod effort is a visual and technological angel mission. On a completely practical plane, and looking at that cover, however, I can help but feel just a little regret over how much harder it is to lose ourselves.

(photo: still looking for credit/NY Times Magazine)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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