Black Box

System Mapping, 2003 04 28

The meaning of black box, as I first heard it, is a sub-system which for the purposes of the present diagram, discussion, consideration … need not be detailed.

If you’re trying to explain an internal combustion engine to someone you can detail your presentation with just a few basic components: cylinder, piston, fuel line, carburetor, spark plug … The carburetor in this list is itself a system with components: but you can deal with its parts in a subsequent discussion, chapter, class … whatever: in terms of the simplified engine, just say the carburetor. In your drawing you can actually draw a line around it: making the black box somewhat literal.


Blog HTML has changed, I can no longer control the borders or widths of tables.

Black Box versus Black Box

Scientists, systems theorists, engineers use the term black box to signify which parts of their diagrams are systems with their details ignored for the moment. Your doctor can refer to your “heart” without having to name arteries or chambers. A black box can also be used where the sub-components of a component in a system (or circuit, or what-have-you) is unknown (or imperfectly known, or imperfectly understood. For a very long historical while the system known as the Nile River had its source in a black box: historians, geographers, geologists … scholars in Europe (as elsewhere) didn’t know where the hell the source of the Nile was.: they just figured it had to have one. Expanding further, the convenience of the black box, wittingly or unwittingly, has been used by theorists for millennia (at the least) where explanations lack specifics, where components run together, blur, or are simply not perceived … (or are denied) … “Why does it rain?” Because God wants it to. “God” “is,” at least in part, a much over-used black box. I don’t know: so I’ll say it’s God.

I have nothing to add to the concept of the black box. I do want to add my emphasis to the widely existing recognition of the tool’s utility. Perhaps I’ll also recommend that we might do well, at least better, to be better conscious of our use of the tool: as we should be with any tool, from hammer and nail … to metaphor … and theology … government … I initiate this module today to bring the scientist’s black box into contrast with a use of “black box” I never heard till my nephew was in the navy. He told me that everything on board ship came in a “black box.” When something was wrong with something, you were told to pull out the old black box and to plug in a new black box.

My best friend is old and blind. When her lamp goes out, she asks me to put in a new bulb. She doesn’t tell me that it has a positive terminal and a negative terminal, and a partial vacuum, and a filament … She doesn’t need to know what makes up a light bulb. Like all of us, she just need to say “Change the bulb.” (Actually, she doesn’t need to say anything: I’ll see that the light doesn’t work, and I’ll go get another light bulb.) But the above report of my nephew’s has bothered me for the more than decade or so since he was first in the navy.

The black box of the engineers is to my understanding a conscious, and deliberate, and wise convenience: when we use a black box, we’re telling you as well as ourselves that we’re ignoring essentials for the temporary sake of a simplicity. We’re not over-simplifying; we’re simplifying. We’re not masking our ignorance; we’re marking it. (Or, we’ll reveal at another time how ignorant we are in that other area.) The black box of the navy makes everyone other than the manufacturer of the black box ignorant. “Here, swabs, I’ll explain a destroyer for you: there’s a black box and a black box and a black box …” Government, ecology, anything … could be explained that way. (And we’re back to “God” again.)

much more to develop, another time

About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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