I watched the new Netflix documentary last night, Downfall: The Case Against Boeing . Full disclosure — I am an aerospace geek, and actually an aerospace engineer and professor. So there’s not much I didn’t know about the MCAS debacle that killed some 346 people in two separate airplane crashes. For those that don’t know the details about the 737MAX, and the addition of the automatic control system, initially hidden from the pilot and co-pilot in order to dodge extra simulation training, the documentary is a good start.
And just so you know, there is a lot of information left out that would likely only be of interest to a specialist, in either aerospace or memetics. The MCAS software was actually originally outsourced to India, and this is NOT to point a finger at an entire subcontinent. But the fact that the decision made in the US to send this thing to an Indian software job shop is also part of the problem. It would require deeper investigation to be sure, but my hunch is that in a more authoritarian culture, there would be no pushback to Boeing from the idea that the pilots should not be allowed agency in a crisis. The key thing you’ll walk from the documentary is how the emergency autopilot system was originally hidden from all pilots. So once it started going haywire, there was really nothing any pilot could do to stop the plane from engaging in the runaway behavior that caused both planes to crash.
And I’ll also ‘fess up. I work with Boeing, and have a ton of students at all levels in that company. So it’s hard to write about what’s happening to friends, who largely are not responsible for any of this.
Where the responsibility does lie was covered by me back in May, 2016, when I wrote about Boeing’s relocation to Chicago. Back then, it was James McNerney in charge for most of my observational period, though Dennis Muilenburg had shown up on the heels of McNerney’s retirement in July 2015. Much had been said, after McNerney’s chiefly financially driven takeover of Boeing, was that returning the leadership position of Boeing to someone like Muilenburg, who was a real “engineer”, would somehow remediate the problems that were showing up technically at Boeing.
Readers of this blog know that job title has little to do with empathy development level, and being CEO at Boeing was no different. In fact, the real change, as the documentary notes, had occurred with the acquisition of McDonnell Douglas by Boeing back in 1995. The nearest analogy I can come up with what happened when Boeing, a largely community-based and communitarian company (almost all of its facilities used to be based in the Puget Sound region) bought out McDonnell Douglas, chiefly a very authority-driven defense contractor was the same as what happened in the movie ‘Alien’, where the eponymous monster planted an egg in a crew member that later came gorily busting out of one of the crew members and attempting to kill everyone in the ship.
Building commercial aircraft inherently demands a high empathy structure organization, one with long organizational memory. Why? The part count in a modern-day jetliner can approach 3 million parts. And all those parts must work together, reliably, on basically a daily basis. No company is making any money if a plane is on the ground. So, absent regular maintenance cycles, that plane needs to be in the air almost constantly. And considering that those same planes are often flying over open water, or Greenland, it’s a zero-tolerance exercise. You can’t even count on small failures not ending catastrophically.
This is NOT the same as building military aircraft. Military aircraft are optimized for certain aspects of high performance, with frequent thorough maintenance cycles. Fly something like an F-22 for over eight hours, and it’s back in the shop for something. It’s just not the same game.
That means that any organization even wanting to get in the game of civil aviation has to have robust, duplex, high fidelity information transfer systems, both in design and operation. Or bad things happen. Such an organization is not going to do well in the face of Wall Street stock price games. And Boeing is the bellwether of how this is true.
There’s a whole post to be written about how many of our high-powered institutions have essentially been captured by the empathy-disordered, and I will get around to writing it. But this is not solely limited to the aerospace world. One can see similar relationally disruptive individuals, like Dr. Tony Fauci, displaying classic gaslighting behavior, and then immediately demanding actions in line with his brain wiring. Things like lockdowns, vaccine mandates, and masks are inherently relationally disruptive, on the same meta-platform as squelching of dissent in the Boeing Company, that led to catastrophic failures in design, that then led to loss of life.
But if there is a takeaway, it’s considering how relational disruptors got into those positions in the first place. All display a collapsed egocentricism — a focus on self-benefit, be it money, power or fame. Secondly, all support relationally disruptive policies, all justified in some kind of low-responsibility mode of public display. Watching the Netflix special, you can watch Muilenburg in the Congressional hearing, in a room packed with loved ones of the crash victims, nary shedding a tear, nor offering anything remotely like a confession or sign of remorse. Hardly different from Tony Fauci, yelling at Rand Paul about how COVID didn’t come from a lab, when he himself knew that he had been funding the very work that, at a minimum, led to the path to COVID, all the while declaring himself the truth itself.
And while it’s interesting to all of us, to out the larger villains in our societal dramas, what’s more interesting is understanding how these people ended up in those power positions at all. Muilenburg’s path is somewhat more opaque, though it is pretty clear he spent no time in any of the civilian aviation tracks. All his chops were gained along the path of Boeing’s defense business, where constant slippage of deadlines would require a certain mendacity and emotional aloofness to continue sucking down taxpayer dollars for programs far over budget and under performance. Fauci started his public career in the AIDS days, and there are videos I’ve watched of him telling the various news outlets that AIDS could be spread to family members just through association with homosexuals. Talk about relational disruption.
But I’d also argue that the reason for those people being there in the first place is because of our own lack of empathy development in the larger population. We as a society have no good models for fingering relational disruptors in the first place. In fact, even in light of obvious empathy-disordered behaviors like child masking in schools, most of the population says nothing. People like Muilenburg and Fauci can fit in far too easily, by telling convenient lies and reaping the benefits of their constant prevarication. And far too many people, even among the educated literati, are so lacking in their own development and self awareness that they believe them.
Are these problems due to one person? Or are they, as I maintain, a systems problem that emergently creates these types of issues in both product and policy? Considering that the Boeing 777X is having, if not similar problems, then similar meta-problems with its flight control systems, we’ve got a much larger problem — especially as complexity increases. We’re starting to see that these low empathy systems cannot produce products to satisfy our needs as we move into the future.
Because planes must obey the laws of physics — and part of those laws is the social physics of their creators. And like it or not — they’re the law.