Instant communication fuels ghoulish speculation - Veterinary Practice
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InFocus

Instant communication fuels ghoulish speculation

The Mercury Column, in which a guest columnist takes the temperature of the profession – and the world around.

OUR world is so very different from
even a few years ago but many of
the changes have been insidious in
their effect to the extent that the
current
status quo seems to take
many of us by surprise.

Who would have thought, even five
years ago, that an official recognition of
the loss of Malaysian Airline flight
MH370 with all its passengers and crew
would be communicated to hundreds of
waiting relatives by text?

On the face of it, the careless
medium of instant communication is
hardly a respectful or appropriate
method of breaking tragic news – or is
it? How else would the airline
company be able to communicate
instantly with hundreds of people
in many countries?

Can one imagine that any other
method of communication could
suitably inform so many people
without the risk that a percentage of
them would find out, before receipt of
an official communication from the
company, by postings on Facebook or
Twitter? Can you imagine anything
worse than that?

The problems with instant
communication are manifold; because it
is instant, there is no time to massage or
edit the message to make it more
acceptable or respectful and, therefore,
it is inherently impersonal.

Breathless recognition

Of course, one can understand the
outrage expressed by some families on
receiving such a text but perhaps that
outrage had been fuelled by what
appeared to be a media gavotte between
breathless recognition of the fact that
no data seemed to exist to help track the
missing airliner and the rash of
conspiracy theories that were inevitably
drawn into the vacuum of absolute
ignorance that plagued the first few
days, and subsequently weeks, after the
plane disappeared.

Theories varied between terrorism,
hijack, human error, sabotage and wilful
suicide.

Was I alone in finding the press
speculation that an experienced captain
with more than 18,000 flying hours
under his belt might wilfully curtail all
communication and fly 239 innocent
souls into the Indian Ocean, to be mawkish and irresponsible?
Media speculation about the mental balance of the crew would have been
frankly libellous had they been alive but
was somehow acceptable if they were
presumed dead – an amazing
development and hardly the world
press’s finest moment.

How ready were we, the ghoulish
speculators on the other end of such
information to jettison all our trust and
confidence, with which we regularly
imbue the role of airline captain and
senior crew members, to even
countenance the theory that an
individual who was fully approved by one of the world’s better airlines might,
without any forewarning, seek to
murder hundreds of people he didn’t
know in one of the most terrifying
methods imaginable?

“That’s newspapers for you,” I hear
you say and then I realised that that’s
another of those insidious changes –
who buys a newspaper any more? I
might buy one to seek more
information about a story but my first
port of call to find out about the news
is a news-feed on my phone or on my
laptop; physically manhandling a
newspaper is now something I rarely do
except when I’m down the pub or in a
hotel over breakfast.

Fallen into the trap

When did that happen? I don’t really
know: it just did happen but, in
accepting it, I now have fallen into the
Wikipedia trap of believing a single
digital source of incoming data and
appear to accept what BBC News tells
me without the age-old angst of
needing to decipher the news by
stripping out the political allegiance of
the newspaper in question.

Now I find myself simply accepting
the political overtones of the BBC
because I want the convenience of
instant news awareness and that’s what I
get on my phone. Over the years, I have
known two people who have been
involved with the BBC and, to be honest, I don’t think we share
much common political ground
but that doesn’t stop my blind
acceptance of what appears in simple text on my
screen.

So is that any
different from Malaysian
Airlines breaking tragic
news by text–and is it any
more or less acceptable than
a wartime telegram?

A different language

Another problem with instant news
supply is that no one has time to
consider either the timbre of the news
itself or the likely effect it may have on
the recipient. When the Malaysian text
was received, it was not only impersonal
but, for so many of the recipients, it
wasn’t even in a language which they
could understand.

So, after weeks of mistrust and
suspicion surrounding what many have
seen as incompetence on the part of the
Malaysian authorities, was this the final
insult for the families of the 154
Chinese passengers on
the plane? By the time
the text arrived, the
Chinese relatives were
distrustful of all
authorities – Malaysian
and Chinese – but one
can imagine, in a world of
instant news delivery, that
all the authorities were
between a rock and a
hard place.

On the one side, the
need for more data will
have involved data held
by military personnel in a
handful of countries, few
of which have much trust
in the goodwill of the
others. On the other
hand, such a tragedy is thankfully very
rare indeed so there will have been few
people within Malaysia who had
appropriate and instantly accessible
experience of how to deal with such an
event.

We can all realise that an early
decision made in error but in good faith
could lose literally days of searching
opportunity. However, previous
experience with the ill-fated Air France
447 showed that handling things
differently made a huge difference
where families felt that they had
received information more accurately
and more quickly.

For those who know more than I,
live streaming of Black Box-type information would appear to be a
simple answer but is not yet an adopted
universal standard for commercial
aircraft.

The irony is that the faint pings
which Inmarsat used to pinpoint what
was most likely the terminal flight path
came from the engine management
systems which are used to transmit
commercially useful data on engine
performance for the benefit of the
manufacturer and the operator.

To adopt a system that would make
more accurate triangulation child’s play,
in the absence of the ACARS system,
would apparently cost as little as $1 per
hour but, unbelievably, this has never been a requirement
despite the inquest
into and subsequent
findings about the loss
of Air France flight
447 in 2009. Most of
us would have been
happier not knowing
that fact but it’s
another “benefit” of
instant news supply.

We live in a society
which, on one hand,
seeks to apportion
blame but, on the
other, accepts that the
admission of liability
is in the gift of the
insurance underwriters
and very little is actually as it appears. Whatever the
possible, eventual culpability and the
recriminations which may follow, the
most important need now (as this is
being written) is to find exactly where
the plane has ended up and, if at all
possible, retrieve the Black Box recorder
to find out exactly what happened.

Ironically, in our new world where
news is instant, the longer it takes to do
that, the more likely it is that this story
will completely disappear from our
consciousness until those data are
produced.

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