The Oceanic Abyss and our Modern Expectations of Perception

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In our hyperconnected, Google Earth-ified, post-Snowden world, we’ve become anesthetized to the idea that, in a matter of minutes, governments and companies can easily ascertain nearly anyone’s exact location and movements on the globe. What’s more, the proliferation of satellites means that people and things are now not only locatable, but also visualizable. “Technology,” Paul Virilio tells us, “finally exposes the whole world.”[1]Virilio’s work investigates the ways that the use of satellite images in modern warfare restructures our perceptive abilities, but I was reminded of his scholarship last spring after the unnerving disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. In the days and weeks that followed the crash, our inability to discern either the plane itself or the circumstances surrounding its disappearance became a phenomenon; with no updates to report, all news media outlets could do was continually reiterate how much remained unknown in the story and give air time to all sorts of otherwise-extraordinary explanations. (CNN’s coverage included a discussion of the plausibility of a black hole theory as an explanation, an imagining of the final minutes inside the cockpit (filmed on a flight simulator), and an exploration of the variety of detritus that comprise sea trash, making the network a particularly egregious perpetrator of this spectacle of not knowing.) Underlying this media coverage of the crash, though, was an assumption that it was inevitable that the plane would soon be found, that we would some day find traces of the crash and understand what happened. I think this expectation stems from the cultural value ascribed to the power and potential of imaging technologies: to see is to believe. Flight 370, however, challenged this expectation of perception. The depths of the ocean remain one of the last places on earth where things that disappeared even hundreds of years ago still remain lost. (Consider the recent discovery of a ship lost during an 1845 expedition to the Arctic.) Light can only travel so far in water, making photography impossible after a certain oceanic depth. Sonar is the next best technology for underwater perception, but in the case of Flight 370, even the best of these instruments become distorted and malfunctioned at the depth levels involved. Pace Virilio, it is perhaps more apt to say that technology exposes the surface of the whole world; as the case of Flight 370 has shown, when it comes to what lies beneath, it seems we’re still just blindly grasping for comprehension. Flight 370 reveals that even in our plugged-in age, there still remain places on the earth that are frustratingly unyielding to technological ways of knowing.


[1] Paul Virilio, War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception (London and New York: Verso Press, 1989); 111.
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One thought on “The Oceanic Abyss and our Modern Expectations of Perception

  1. Evan

    Very interesting post, Leah – thanks! Amidst the discussions of the limits of surveillance in the wake of 370, I hadn't yet heard anyone bring up the surface vs. depth distinction.

    I'm curious which (if either) of the following two directions you'd go with this insight:

    Option 1: there is a third geographic dimension of surveillance that we haven't yet reckoned with. We should pay attention to depth as well as coordinate location as we attend to the further expansion of surveillance technologies, their promise, the kinds of political culture that they facilitate, their limits, the threats their pose, opportunities for adapting or subverting them, etc. etc. (Let's call this “the Rankin.”)

    Option 2: Yet another instance in which our techno-utopianism/dystopianism has revealed itself to be way overblown, and distracts us from questions of real political import (“the Morozov.”)

    Like

    Reply

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