Last week I wrote about the costly but ultimately futile search for tech legend Jim Gray who mysteriously disappeared at sea without a trace last January (see Search & Rescue: Solving big problems to honor Jim Gray). In an eerily similar development, adventurer Steve Fossett has now dropped from sight while piloting a single-engine plane over the Nevada mountains (see the Guardian Unlimited's story Rescuers scour desert for signs of Fossett's plane).
Both men began their journeys in ideal weather conditions, but at best guess fell victim to a sudden violent change in their surroundings. As with Jim Gray before him, Fossett's plight has mobilized a combination of public (civil air patrol and national guard search teams) and private (billionaire friend Richard Branson of Virgin has requested Google Earth's assistance) high-tech resources. Fossett is widely admired for his risk-taking exploits in the vain of past American aviator legends Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart and Howard Hughes, as Gray enjoyed far-reaching mythical status in the 'Net community.
On a very superficial level, it makes one wonder if such attention would be mustered for the loss of you or me. Of course that would require the capacity to embark on such adventures, which is beyond the means of most of us, at least with comparable glamor. I might be able to manage a starless trek across country on my mountain bike, but I doubt my succumbing to mid-continental fatigue, drought or storm would elicit more than a flier posted at the local café (don't make me prove it!).
More seriously, it should challenge us to consider what other impending loss of life ought to compel a wider social focus — be it the man-made tragedy of Darfur, the various worldwide health crises, or the more general threat to our climate. Why does the lack of one man, no matter how influential or interesting, merit so much when millions of others receive so little? Do our limited human minds need a very specific face to place next to our sadness? Do tragedies on a global scale ever register, or do we require the narrowed down demise of the individual to provoke reaction?