The airplane blowout came from our rotten Big Tech economy
By Mark Hurst • January 10, 2024
A recent Alaska Airlines flight had to make an emergency landing because, at 16,000 feet, a failed door plug blew a hole in the plane. This was a Boeing 737-MAX, the same model that crashed a few years back – twice – due to murderously bad design in its MCAS, an automated system that took control from pilots and pushed the plane into a nosedive.
The in-air blowout creates a new crisis for Boeing. In United, Alaska Find Loose Parts on Some Boeing 737 MAX 9 Jets (WSJ, Jan 9, 2024 – unlocked article) we learn that airlines are inspecting their Boeing planes and finding loose bolts. It appears that the blowout might be due to shoddy manufacturing at Boeing (or a subcontractor). Futurism just reported that “the incident may have been the result of ‘cost-cutting’ measures,” something we’ll surely learn more about in the upcoming investigation.
The whole incident leaves me with a sense of unease, because it’s not a one-off problem with a single plane. It’s a systemic issue, one we’ve been warned about. In October 2022 I wrote about Boeing’s transformation into a fully financialized entity. From my Moralists, unite column:
One example of this is the growth of corporate power, fully divested from concerns of human life and community. Generally here I write about the sins of Big Tech companies, of which there are many, but malicious and predatory companies seem to be dominant in most industries today. The new documentary Downfall: The Case Against Boeing, viewable on Netflix, is a perfect case in point. The movie focuses on the two 737-MAX crashes as primary evidence of Boeing’s descent into an immoral actor. The documentary skillfully tells the story of how hundreds of lives were lost due to a combination of design flaws (a single malfunctioning sensor could bring down the entire plane), an obsession with “growth at any cost” (especially the stock price and executive bonuses), and secretive, deceitful senior leadership (ignoring warnings from engineers, hiding the new deadly system from pilots, and covering up mistakes after the crashes).
I remember one scene from the documentary in which a former Boeing engineer described the moment when Boeing’s corporate culture changed from safety-conscious to profit-conscious. It was the 1997 merger with McDonnell Douglas, an event that made some investors and senior leaders very wealthy – and, to the point of the documentary, also led to the deaths of 346 people. Now years later, given last week’s blowout, there’s no sign that Boeing has shifted its focus away from growth.
Now consider that Boeing’s example – pursuing profit even as it endangers people’s well-being – is a template for other companies and, indeed, entire industries. This raises important questions. What happens when an economy becomes fully financialized? More to the point, what happens when a society’s most powerful organizations, and people, become obsessed with growth at any cost?
Consider some excerpts of Marc Andreessen’s “techno-optimist manifesto,” as redacted by Ben Grosser (Oct 17, 2023):
Growth is progress. But lack of growth is a kill-all.
Everything good is downstream of growth.
Not growing is stagnation. Growth. Growth. Growth is technology.
Growth, growth, growth, more growth: more growth, growth, growth, more growth, more technology.
These snippets are of course carefully excised from Andreessen’s text, but they offer a fair summary of his larger point. Growth is central to Andreessen, just as it is to other Silicon Valley power brokers and everything they affect . . . which, today, is just about everything. The result of this corruption is palpable. Much like what I wrote about last month in Instagram’s unmentionable problem (Dec 6, 2023), “growth at any cost” results in unspeakable things happening on global services, like Instagram and Facebook, that are used daily by billions of people. The rot is not only allowed to occur, it’s encouraged, amplified, and monetized. The health of children, the social fabric, the future of democracy: they’re all enthusiastically sacrificed for just a smidge, even a chance at a smidge, of more growth. It is, after all, growth at any cost.
Growth of another kind
On Techtonic this week I spoke with Jason Koebler, co-founder of 404 Media, about a wild story he published on January 4. According to his article, the state of New Jersey used Covid relief funds to purchase surveillance cameras from a Chinese company banned by the U.S. government because of its complicity in human rights abuses in Xinjiang, China.
• Episode page with links and listener comments
It’s a lot, I know. But consider this: in the prison state in Xinjiang, where a million or more Uyghurs are locked up and even those not in prison live under constant surveillance, the cameras are the same as those now being installed in U.S. communities. And to be clear: it doesn’t much matter if those cameras are Chinese-made or American-made. In either case, the data is ripped out of citizens’ private lives. This means more power for the state and the surveillance monopolists, and fewer rights for the citizens.
It’s worth learning about Xinjiang, because it’s the logical endpoint of a society dominated by surveillance. I’ve covered this on several Techtonic episodes, such as January 17, 2022 with Darren Byler, author of In the Camps: China’s High-Tech Penal Colony. (Notice that the “high-tech” in the title refers to the cameras now installed in New Jersey, and no doubt many others states as well.) See also my column We said ‘never again.’ Now look at Xinjiang (Jan 21, 2022).
So we see that “growth at any cost” doesn’t just apply to tech companies. The surveillance state, and the expanding powers of the government to spy on its citizens, is another runaway problem. Meantime we are all but forced to use Big Tech software that spies on us, with no way for us to decline the surveillance or appeal its unjust outcomes.
We are all, in fact, much like the passengers on the Boeing 737-MAX. Once we’re buckled in and the plane takes off, we have no way to opt out of whatever is going to happen next. Maybe now would be a good time to start pushing back on the “growth at any cost” obsession, before the next blowout occurs.
Until next time,
Mark Hurst, founder, Creative Good – see our services or join as a member
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