Opening the Black Box

I’ve been having technology problems the past week. First my new computer (that should be able to orbit Jupiter) quit playing any sound. In a withering blast of irony this happened right as I bought a new set of Bose speakers for the system to end all systems. At the same time our house A/C went on the fritz… again. What do these two things have in common, besides driving me to my knees in anger and frustration? Mostly they reminded me of the black box society we live in, and the misconception that this is a recent phenomenon.

Ever since computers became a common household fixture, I have heard people talking about “black box technology”. If you aren’t familiar with the term, the idea is that technology has become so complex that the average person can’t open it up, tinker with it, and figure out how it works. I think this misconception derives at least to some extent from the middle of the 20th century when for the first time we had a large middle class that was largely educated and technically savvy, thanks in no small part to having spent time in the military (where they were exposed to and forced to learn how to fix a wider variety of technology than ever before). This also lead to a generation of “gearheads”, guys who enjoyed working on their cars and taught their sons to work on them too (I guess their daughters got taught how to bake; don’t look at me, it was the Fifties).

But just because little boys were putting together ham radios and big boys were tinkering with fully assembled automobiles doesn’t mean that all of technology was somehow an open book. There were tech trade schools even back then, although the societal meme at the time was “typewriter repairman” rather than ITT Tech. But they both serve the same purpose, and for the same reason: there is abundant technology that the average person uses all the time and has no notion of how to repair.

As I was growing up, I had a lot of friends who would assemble their own computers (I had neither the money, the skill, nor the patience). Some even made good money doing this for other people, because this was a “black box technology” even though computer assembly even today is basically just like Legos: snap the pieces together and start it up (just make sure to snap the right piece in the right slot). It’s actually easier than it used to be, because things are better labeled and systems are more forgiving. But for the life of me I still can’t get my sound card to work, and I still had to call out a repairman to work on my A/C (who’s a great guy, by the way). HVAC has been around for a long time as well, and they have had trade schools for that as long as I can remember, so why is it that neither I, my wife, nor either of my roommates, all of us reasonably intelligent and reasonably well-educated, had any idea how to fix it?

The black box is nothing new. We just have more black boxes than ever before, and we’re more afraid than ever to open them up.


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