Beware the Black Box

Beware the Black Box
September 5, 2013 Alice MacGillivray
Antique tractors exemplify era where we saw how things worked.

TractorHave you ever observed people watching old, working machinery at a fall fair or antique museum?  It doesn’t seem to matter what it is: an antique tractor or steam engine or oil derrick or stone-ground flour mill: people are intrigued.  Why?  My guess is that in our modern world, we almost never see how things work; it is an absolute novelty to see the belt turn the axle, which turns the wheels.  I took this picture at the Courtenay fall fair on Vancouver Island where spectators lined up along the dirt paths to watch the proud owners drive by.

We use the term “black box” when we understand something of an item’s input and output, but we cannot see what happens inside: the box hides mysteries created by experts.  Our modern world is full of black boxes.  I often wonder if the benefits they bring camouflage downsides.  Do we stop trying to understand things?  Are we less inspired to improve things?  Do we leave more things in the hands of “experts” because we aren’t confident in our contributions?  Do we miss out on the joy of regular, modest, maintenance and improvement accomplishments our ancestors felt?  We don’t even have to go back to our ancestors.  I used to own an old Volkswagen Beetle, the only car I could ever repair, thanks to the visible engine parts and my VW repair manual for the “Compleat Idiot.”

And if I’m on to something here, does this black box syndrome translate to the workplace? “Don’t question that: the engineers developed it.”  “A lot of work has gone into that strategic plan: wise not to question it.”  Or what about our personal and community lives: “Why? Because my doctor said it was a good idea.”

Next time you’re at a fall fair, pause to really look at that old steam engine or tractor or threshing machine.  Is there something deeper we could learn and teach our children?

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