I’ve written about this topic before, that owning and using a technology is more than just purchasing it, but I’d like to delve further into this general topic using the Boeing 737 Max as a departure point.
But first, a little bit of backstory.
When Laura and I lived in the Basque Country I learned an interesting concept. An euskaldun is a person who has the Basque language, Euskera. The morpheme -dun connotes ownership, to have and to own, but it goes deeper than that. It’s an intrinsic “have” that is more than simple acquisition. It’s the kind of ownership an inventor has, or someone who was born into something. English speakers might use the word, “native” to communicate a similar sentiment. The Basques have various words for describing those who are new speakers of Euskera, those that are fluent, perhaps even perfect, but were not born to it. The -dun communicates an intrinsic knowledge that cannot be separated from the person. You know it, you own it, it is a part of you.
The term helps us, I think, when we consider how to design technology exported for use outside of whatever culture. It would also be important to consider the hidden biases and assumptions baked into a product whether it be software or a jet aircraft or software on a jet aircraft. No matter how much we try, exported invention and knowledge will always contain unexpected challenges to those that use it outside of its native context.
Let’s put this all in the context of commercial aircraft operation in the US. The US has the largest military air force in the world. The US has the highest quantity of pilots and ex-pilots. The US invented the airplane. There are certain assumptions that go into aircraft operation, like there’s a good chance that the pilot has spent some time in the air force, has flown many types of air craft, is male, is white, and is older and more experienced. But it also goes without saying that the aircraft was probably designed for him by people that look like him. Engineers have long struggled with biased assumptions in design.
I have confronted numerous challenges trying to integrate technology knowledge in Puerto Rico among non-native English speakers. There are cultural and social factors that play a role in how a person sees and uses the object. If it wasn’t birthed from their values, their assumptions, and their social construct, there will always be unexpected gaps. The best they can do is to learn to adapt themselves to its construct and its context. The Puerto Rican people are very adept at context switching between two cultures and languages, but it’s still a band-aid solution.
Back to the Ethiopian Air 737 Max crash. Boeing has said, that “…experienced 737 pilots needed little training for the new Max 8.” What is an experienced pilot? Is Boeing basing this recommendation on what it knows about American pilots, that they are generally more experienced and older?
Boeing engineer says, “Yeah, if it gets dicey, flip the switch and turn off the MCAS system. It’s really not necessary anyway, Bill, it’s mostly to make you feel better about the new handling characteristics of airframe.”
We now know that there were incidents where the MCAS system had responded adversely in US airspace. The pilots turned the system off and filed a complaint. No crashes, but it pissed off a few pilots.
It may also be the case that US manufacturers all ordered the optional second redundant sensor model. Other carriers around the world may have less money or may interpret “optional” in a different way. Optional may mean unnecessary to them. How optional is it? Well, apparently it’s only optional if you don’t care if your plane stays in the air.
So we go down the list, how well written was the training manual? Was it translated properly into Ethiopian? What was that person’s cultural knowledge? Was it not translated at all, relying on the Ethiopian engineers’ knowledge of English? I can tell you first hand, that no matter how well you speak/write in a second language, there will always be gaps. I have done a master’s degree in Spanish, have lived in Puerto Rico for over 20 years, and there are still things I learn every day, things that my kids already know at a high school level. So, in order for our Ethiopian pilots to have the same performance characteristics as our American native pilots, they would have to have complete and total ownership over the culture of flying, American specific cultural nuance, all the tacit and implicit meanings of the terms found in technical manuals, and the assumptions made in order to achieve parity. It’s a tall order, and even if our Ethiopian pilots were twice as talented, twice as smart, and bilingual they are still hamstrung by a technology they didn’t invent and they don’t own. Their knowledge no matter how spectacular will be degraded by a context and assumptions that are not their own.