Satellites. I don’t really get ’em; I just know they’re up there. They are littered throughout space, suspended in orbit, beaming essential information such as directional coordinates, international intelligence and Howard Stern’s advice for treating warts. When it was time for my mother to join the modern world through the purchase of her first cellphone several years ago, my brother and I went to the store with her to guide her through the process. As she pored over coverage maps, straining to decipher safe zones, the salesman attempted to clarify the way minutes were tabulated.
“You see,” he began in a voice mothers use for unstable toddlers, “You’re in Arizona. You can call anyone in Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado at no cost. See, they’re colored in y-ell-ow. The rest of these States — the blue ones — are out of your plan so you have a limited amount of minutes.”
As my brother and I considered what regions of the country she could call with abandon, our mother thought she’d stumbled upon the loophole that would bring the wireless giants to their knees.
“Well,” she started carefully, “My husband travels a lot so I might call him in the morning when he is in Las Vegas, but then he might have a layover in Topeka before landing in Cleveland in the evening, where I might want to call him again. So my point is, sir,” and she really emphasized the ‘sir’ because this was the part where her Erin Brockovich was about to cripple international telecom, “How do you know where he is when I’m calling him?”
My brother, usually possessed with a boundless patience for our mother, had hit his threshold. His face flushed red, his hands shot up to the heavens, and he bellowed, “Ma! It’s called satellites!”
Thus, satellites began to take over human existence, and I bought fully into the scheme. I dropped a land line as soon as I got a cellphone. I subscribed to XM Radio. I bought a GPS system for the car so that a digitized tour guide with a nonjudgmental voice could declare “Recalculating” whenever a deviation from course was made. All of these things seemed to improve life. No longer did I get disruptive telemarketing calls during the dinner hour. I haven’t heard a radio commercial for comfortable feminine products in years. If we get lost on the road, I can steer us back to the straight and narrow without having to look at the angle of the sun against a stick or having to ask a gas station attendant who probably has a collection of jars containing human organs behind the counter.
Our dependency on satellites only amplifies as time wears on. We need them to communicate with family flung far around the world. We rely on them to watch television, to learn of significant happenings to the weather and to help us find a Target. In a more pressing vein, I trust that satellites arm my brother, no longer a kid in a wireless store but a Navy guy on high-risk missions, with information he needs to stay safe in lands that are anything but.
Everyone is thinking about satellites at the moment because they are the figurative eyes on the ground when trying to find an airliner that no one can find. This agonizing quest to find the vanished Malaysian Airlines plane has a handful of nations, hundreds of family members of the missing, and millions of CNN-onlookers stymied. Every day we awake to new data and fresh images provided by satellites we never even knew where there, operated by countries we figured probably didn’t even have any.
We stare into grainy photographs, straining to see something aerodynamic to the shape of what is pictured, awaiting boats — and human eyes — to confirm whether its the scene of a tragedy or a current of swirling refuse. While we should all now have an appreciation for the vastness and shiftiness of the sea, we still believe that the end of this story will be written by the unblinking and always roving eyes of the satellites. We trust that this invisible network of intelligence will find the clues that bob in the wavelets or lie in the signals that dart through the air. There seems to be no other course, no better choice.
I settle into the driver’s seat of my car this morning, children already packed tightly into car seats, and pull the GPS screen closer so that I can type in an address.
“Now,” I sigh and murmur aloud. “How do we get there?”
The kids look up and chirp, “The car knows, Mama.”
I look in the rearview mirror at them and smile. The car knows. Or so we hope.