The Lighthouse: Loss, love and surveillance

The Australian

In May 2019, Belgian tourist Theo Hayez mysteriously disappeared in Australia’s Byron Bay. The 18 year-old was on the final stretch of his travels before returning home to begin university. But instead of heading back to Europe, Theo vanished without a trace in the early hours of a Saturday morning, leaving both his family and the local Byron community desperate for answers.

The Lighthouse is more than just a podcast. It is a part of live search efforts, and was initiated by Theo’s family in order to bring a wider public gaze to a floundering investigation. As an audience we’re invited — even implored — to agonize over the detail, and to attempt to build a coherent story from the pieces of the puzzle he left behind.

This feels like an eminently solvable case. Not least because the Google maps data extracted from Theo’s phone allows anyone to retrace his path that night. We learn that it is a strange path, deep into the dark and unfamiliar Australian bush.

Questions abound in every episode: Why did Theo take such a dangerous route? Where was he going? Was he alone? Why does he pause for seven full minutes? What causes him to quicken his pace?

Unfortunately, there are few answers.

In focusing much of its investigation on the data trail, The Lighthouse has a complexity that goes beyond a recognizable tale of someone going missing in unexplained circumstances . Indeed, the series becomes almost as much a story about digital surveillance as it is about the disappearance. The avalanche of data made available by Google is at once extremely useful and deeply disturbing. But there is even something that feels voyeuristic — disrespectful almost — in learning of Theo’s every movement and, to a lesser degree, his thoughts as mediated through internet searches.

Yet, there’s no denying this information is invaluable. It provides a powerful lead in a case with few other clues. Whatever feelings we may have about penetrating and ubiquitous tech surveillance, here we are forced to acknowledge the value it can yield, and to ask ourselves hard questions about whether spying can be validated by cases like Theo’s.

Narrator David Murray pushes this thought further, asking whether a kind of “digital dragnet” should allow police to identify other cell phones active in the same place at the time the victim apparently came to harm. It’s so easy to endorse this seemingly simple tactic when confronted with the frustratingly incomplete picture of Theo’s final evening, though the implications of assent are clearly huge.

Still, it’s important to emphasize that The Lighthouse isn’t just a dry examination of the competing moralities orbiting connected tech. It’s also a love letter to Byron Bay and its incredible humanity. The strangers moved to action by Theo’s story. A local community that quickly organizes itself as both search party and surrogate family to the grief-stricken Hayezs.

Though the investigation — and Theo’s own path — necessarily takes us through some of Byron’s edgier neighborhoods, this is more than counterbalanced by the compassion and proactivity of these selfless Aussies. It’s hard not to be moved by it.

The nature of documentary podcasting is that the subject or subjects are real, but rarely will you listen to a case that feels more real — more temporally relevant and urgent — than this. Yes, in many respects 2019 feels light years away already, but media reports continue to keep the light of hope alive and this podcast also has a critical role to play when it comes to helping those closest to Theo get the answers they so badly need.

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