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Sub-optimal 3 min read


What it's like to watch news coverage of a mishap on a trip you'd never have taken.

By Cary Littlejohn

It was an unremarkable evening. Supper had been eaten. My mom and I were watching baseball.

My phone dinged out of the blue. A message. It was my sister.

“Are the people in the submersible dead?”

That’s all she said. We hadn’t been talking about the news of the past few days—the growing concern around a submersible tour to tour the site of the Titanic on the ocean floor which was now lost.

“I think it’s likely,” was all I wrote back to her.

It feels weird though. It feels like an overlooked footnote, not front-page news. Perhaps people are sitting in front of TVs and computer screens, rapt and waiting with bated breath somewhere, but it isn’t happening here.

Maybe there’s not much to see right now. I turned on CNN this morning and save for the chyron running across the bottom of the page, there was no mention of the search-and-rescue effort in the few minutes before it went to commercial break.

Now as the top of the hour rolled around, there’s mention of the submersible: There are reports that banging was heard on sonar. It was being repeated every 30 minutes.

There are four planes, five ships, a sonar probe, and another underwater vessel searching about 10,000 square miles. It’s quite a large operation, and CNN dedicated the first 10 minutes of the hour’s coverage to it.

The Atlantic published a piece about the appeals of extreme tourism, and I wonder if that fact, that these people voluntarily made this trip at great expense to themselves, is contributing to the quiet nature of its coverage (or more accurately, it’s place in our day-to-day discourse).

The Titanic Sub and the Enduring Appeal of Extreme Tourism
Diving to the bottom of the ocean is risky. So is flying to space. But people will keep paying to do both.

It’s not a story that says “Well, they were asking for it, weren’t they?” or “What did they think would happen?” But it feels like that sentiment is out there. Especially as more and more information comes out about just how untested and experimental the technology for the trip would be.

The article provides an interest spectrum to classify ourselves:

On one end are the risk-averse psychocentrics, who travel least often and to familiar spots. On the other end are the risk-embracing allocentrics, who travel often and are more adventurous.

These folks surely fall near the allocentric end of the spectrum, and because it’s fairly extreme in nature, it’s easy to imagine how it creates an empathy gap with those who fall on the psychocentric end.

You can just hear it now: “I don’t know what they were thinking. I could never.” And millions of people will feel better about their worldview as they fail to get emotionally invested in the plights of people who couldn’t be less like themselves.

We’ll surely grapple with this if (or when) a tourist trip to space goes wrong: “Those people spent all that money to kiss the edge of space, but did they never see Apollo 13 or Gravity? Weren’t they aware of what could happen up there?”

Which is silly, because of course they were. But that’s what it means to be wired in such a way where such thoughts aren’t steadfast dealbreakers, as The Atlantic article describes.

It’s a tragedy no matter how you slice it. The adventure looks foolish in hindsight. The company will surely have a lot to answer for, no matter the outcome of this search-and-rescue effort.

But I want to make sure I don’t get lost in potential apathy simply because they took on these risks voluntarily. I still feel a pang of sadness every time I hear of a death on Mount Everest, and that’s really not all that different.

It’s admittedly easier said than done, when even without hindsight I feel certain I wouldn’t have trusted the trip’s promises, no matter how appealing the notion of exploration might seem in the abstract. In reality, I wouldn’t have taken the plunge. But that’s just me.