Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System - we have a problem

Boeing 737 MAX"At a high-level briefing at the Federal Aviation Administration on March 28, officials revealed "black box" data from Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 indicated that the Boeing 737 MAX's flight software had activated an anti-stall feature that pushed the nose of the plane down just moments after takeoff. The preliminary finding officially links Boeing's Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) to a second crash within a five-month period. The finding was based on data provided to FAA officials by Ethiopian investigators." 29 March, 2019

    (Excerpt from Escaping the Progress Trap, Chapter 7) In the realm of technology this phenomenon of blind progress is generally not acknowledged, though it has come under scrutiny in the area of computer programming. Alan Cooper, in The Inmates Are Running the Asylum1 has written about a number of cases where serious problems resulted from programs being written and deployed without a clear understanding of the real environment in which they must function. One instance he cites is when a passenger airplane pilot mistakenly selected ROMEO instead of ROZO from a computer-generated list of navigation points. It was a disastrous choice as the aircraft crashed, and Cooper's point is that the computer could have alerted the pilot that his choice was not appropriate for that flight plan. The programmer was not a pilot, and the system had not been tested for worst-case scenarios.

    Another incident involved a hospital ID bracelet that would trigger an alarm if the wearer approached an opened door. It was designed to prevent the abduction of infants. However, it could not work if the door was already open for someone coming in the opposite direction, and this problem did not come to light before an abduction took place. Cooper, incidentally also refers to the `frog in hot water' syndrome. Describing cameras that become more difficult to use with each electronic enhancement, he says "I was unaware, like the frog, of my cameras' slow march from easy to hard-to-use as they slowly became computerized. We are all experiencing this same, slow, anaesthetizing encroachment of computer behavior in our everyday lives". Cooper's solution is to factor the human user into the computer design process: Today, programmers consciously design the `code' inside programs but only inadvertently design the interaction with humans. They design what it does but not how it behaves, communicates, or informs. Conversely, interaction designers focus directly on the way users see and interact...Cooper has identified the pitfalls of overspecialization, and his phrase `anaesthetizing encroachment' is particularly apt.

The Boeing MCAS failures are graphic illustrations of progress traps. Donald Trump's remarks decrying complexity immediately following the second Boeing 737 Max accident may have been crass in mentioning only his own safety, yet bore some truth. The irony is, the climate change that he himself augments (while denying) reflects the same complexity that Joseph Tainter2, Jared Diamond3 and Danny Miller4 have abundantly described, with high confidence. While most world leaders acknowledge climate change, they (and most scientists) are reluctant to acknowledge the role of progress itself, and of the tendency of human behaviour to promote short-term interests at the cost of long-term survival.

1. Alan Cooper, The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How To Restore The Sanity, Sams, MacMillan Indianapolis, 1999. pp. 34
2. Dr. Joseph Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge University Press 1988
3. Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Viking 2005
4;. Danny Miller, The Icarus Paradox, Harper Business, New York, 1990.

Buy the book

Download the Kindle version: US UK

You don't actually need a Kindle -

"The Progress Trap - and how to avoid it" Copyright Daniel O'Leary, registered at
the Copyright Office, Consumer and Corporate Affairs, Canada on April 5, 1991 (ref 405917)