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A sensible tweet from Donald Trump?

March 14, 2019

Here’s a Donald Trump tweet. It’s the first I’ve read for I don’t know how long that’s worth thinking about on its own merits, rather than because of the blatherous fool who posted it:

“Airplanes are becoming far too complex to fly. Pilots are no longer needed, but rather computer scientists from MIT. I see it all the time in many products. Always seeking to go one unnecessary step further, when often old and simpler is far better. Split second decisions are…. needed, and the complexity creates danger. All of this for great cost yet very little gain. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want Albert Einstein to be my pilot. I want great flying professionals that are allowed to easily and quickly take control of a plane!”

It’s only slightly above the level of a bar room opinion, but it’s still food for thought. If the first sentence had been phrased as a question rather than as a pronouncement from on high, and the tweet had ended with “what do you think?”, then you might think that it had been posted by a normal person.

Judging by the response – tens of thousands of likes – Trump is not the only person who thinks this way. I couldn’t bring myself to like anything emanating from the great narcissist, but I have to admit I agree with him to the extent that I get along quite nicely without Siri, Alexa, an interactive fridge and a hundred apps that my offspring couldn’t do without. And the last thing I want is a driverless car.

But when it comes to getting on an aircraft, Trump forgets that most modern aircraft, from the Airbus A310 onwards, wouldn’t get off the ground without flight management systems designed by those MIT software geeks, and certainly wouldn’t stay there without a pilot’s hand constantly on the controls. What’s more, his beloved air force has planes that would be incapable of flying at all without software that help them virtually defy the laws of aerodynamics.

The president also forgets that the Boeing 737 MAX 8 – the aircraft that has fallen out of the skies twice in the last three months and the reason for his tweet – may have been created “for great cost”. But it was designed to be 18% more fuel efficient than its predecessors and nearest rivals. That’s no small gain, both for voracious consumers of cheap travel and profit-hungry airlines.

In his Fox-addled twilight zone, if he paused for thought before sounding off, he might also remember that technology depends on innovation. It’s not like making cornflakes or screwdrivers, things that have been around more or less unchanged for a century. If Apple stopped making new stuff or improving its existing products, people would keep their iPhones for ten years, not three. Apple would go into rapid decline, and possibly bust. Without technological innovation, needed or not, the US economy would pancake.

In fact you could argue that Trump, me and millions of others of a certain age are something of a drain on the economy because we have no desire to change our phones every three years, and we see no need to ride around in cars that need computers to keep them running efficiently. Its the young – by which I mean people under 50 – who generally do the inventing and who have been suckered into accepting phones whose makers use updates to limit their useful life, and buying washing machines that stop working after a couple of years. The rest of us get exasperated at the relentless plugging of new products, and can’t see why our phones need updates that wipe all our contacts.

Where things often go wrong is when the marketing people dictate the pace of product development, and the engineers struggle to catch up. This seems to have been the problem with the 737 MAX. And it certainly wouldn’t be an engineer or designer who takes pride in their work that willingly designs fridges to fail in a few years where older models cheerfully did their job for decades.

But even parsimonious oldies cheerfully accept new stuff if it makes our lives easier without our having to give a second thought to the investment and innovation that made it possible – so long as the price is right. And where would we be without the internet, contactless cards, satnav, e-tickets and so forth? What we don’t want is hassle – having to re-learn an operating system or needing a one-hour tutorial in order to use a printer. That’s what causes us to reject the technology.

The only way for Trump’s generation can escape the relentless treadmill created by the technologists is to find a yurt in Mongolia, a tree house in New Guinea or a retirement home in Florida or Surrey. In Trump’s case a secure institution with his very own Nurse Ratched to make sure he keeps up with his medication would do just nicely.

As for the 737 MAX, I’m glad that Boeing have been forced to give their engineers the opportunity to do what’s necessary to satisfy their customers as to the safety of their products. And hopefully I’ll be able to use that little app that tracks aircraft en-route in the four corners of the world without worrying too much about whether one of them will suddenly disappear. Until the next update comes along, of course.

From → Business, Sport, Travel, USA

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