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Richard Levick

April 01, 2019

Boeing Meets Thomas Hobbes On the Way To AI

In interviews and coverage this week with The New York Times, Korea’s Chosun, CBS Radio, and O’Dwyer’s, all of the reporters expertly covered Boeing’s crisis response. The larger conversations were, to me, more interesting.

Great tragedies bear great lessons or we dishonor the dead and our own capacity for growth. If we are fortunate enough to have lost no one on either Lion Air or Ethiopian Air; if we are not a Boeing employee, we have enough distance to grow without the pain of loss. For anyone at the epicenter of a crisis response, time travels at quantum speed, simultaneously both too fast for certainty and so slow that you can see each moment as if in a movie. It is not an experience for those fearful of decisions and their consequences.

Do not walk too fast past this tragedy or we will miss the lessons for our own coming challenges in this disrupted age. As you can see from Boeing’s improving response, they are learning quickly:

  1. Business-to-Business communications no longer exists. That form of communications where you could name all of your customers, like Takada, GS Yuasa, and Foxconn, is gone. We are all consumer brands now. No one is talking about how Ethiopian Air trains its pilots. It’s all Boeing, all the time. Boeing is no more a business brand any more than Apple is. If you still think B-to-B than your day of reckoning is soon to come.
  2. The last war In not the next war. Generals always look backwards to see forwards but sometimes forget to crane their necks. Boeing learned wise lessons from the four crashes of their then-new 727s in the mid-1960s as they did from the two DC 10s that crashed in 1970s by now-acquired McDonnell Douglas. Both would become highly popular planes. Boeing learned to focus on the long view. But the longer perspective, which will ultimately serve Boeing well, inhibited them in the opening hours and days of the crisis. History is a great teacher, but there are always exceptions.
  3. The FAA has lost its global dominance. Whether due to the result of nationalistic trends or disruption, the FAA no longer dominates global aviation safety decisions. This is problematic for Boeing, which has spent a half century integrating itself into the FAA regulatory apparatus. Their $40 billion market value drop – when the total cost of recovery is estimated at $5 billion – is at least, in part, a recognition of this seismic shift. How many companies are re-thinking their public affairs strategy in its entirety?
  4. Social media have made all crashes (and incidents) local. Few doubt that the FAA would have grounded the Max 8 if the crashes had occurred in the US. What the FAA and Boeing failed to initially appreciate is that social media have made all crashes local. This works both ways. When United Airlines forcibly dragged Dr. Dao off their plane at O’Hare two years ago, the video was download 20 million times per hour in China. Tip O’Neill’s advice that “all politics is local” now resonates for business, even B-to-B businesses.
  5. The safety choice was democratized. When the travel site Kayak.com offered passengers a choice of opting out of a Max 8, for the first time it gave the power to air travelers to choose flights not just on price, location, and time but on their perception of the safety of an airplane. This quickly escalated to the de facto grounding of the Max 8 by the public, not by the FAA, Boeing, or the President.

All air plane crashes are news. This one will mark the moment at which we understand part of the price of AI and how it is inseparably connected to the price of the Hobbesian bargain. Democracy is voluntary. In exchange for a constitutional form of government (where we have the power to “throw the rascals out”) we voluntarily turn over decisions to experts – aviation, medicine, regulation, etc. Increasingly, shareholders and non-shareholders alike are asking the question, “How expert are the experts?” And therefore, “At what cost do we turn over decisions to experts in exchange for order?” Civilians on social media are in no position to determine the airworthiness of a new plane. But for a while, we are going to think we are.

New York Times- Dealbook Briefing 
New York Times- “As Boeing Confronted a Swelling Crisis, It Had Little to Say”
O’Dwyer’s- “Sard Verbinnen Flies to Boeing Crisis Support”

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Posted by: Richard Levick

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