The Black Box Paradox

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A Black Box is defined as:

Any complex piece of equipment, typically a unit in an electronic system, with contents that are mysterious to the user. (1)

I’ve always been amazed by the way technology advancements shape society’s perception of reality. In particular there are 2 main areas where I would like to concentrate my attention on:

a) The fact that people tend to blindly trust or worship technology as the world’s next panacea.

b) The increasing level of abstraction that complex technologies have, exposing to the end user a limited and distorted version of what truly lies behind.

As products and processes increase in complexity, the user interface becomes more friendly and intuitive, creating the illusion that the technology in the background is trivial and at the same time trustworthy.

Thought at first sight this might seem as a natural trend, we might be overlooking the hidden traps that await us ahead.

Over the years I have encountered signs in history and in our daily lives that reveal a global society that is immersed in a type of collective technological hypnotism that I chose to call the “Black Box Paradox.”

Everybody uses those electronic “black boxes” around us, but very few are aware of what is happening inside, nor the moral implications of using them blindly. Stop for a while to analyze the fact that by simply clicking a button in your screen, from the comfort of your desk, you can trigger an array of events ranging from transferring funds to Japan, shutting down a nuclear plant or even killing a person with an unmanned drone.

Let’s look at some examples in ancient history and in our present times, where people trust and use technologies without having the foundation knowledge to control their destiny.

A lesson we learned centuries ago

After the fall of the Roman Empire, in the fifth century, the knowledge to build aqueducts was lost for almost 1000 years. All they had left were a few tables with standard values which allowed them to reproduce old designs only; but when they faced the challenge to engineer a whole new project they did not know how it was calculated. They had to wait till the Middle Ages to start all over again and restudy this great Roman legacy.

For centuries constructors used aqueduct tables without understanding the fundamental principles to design new ones.

Machines can’t lie…or can they?

Once I read about a curious experiment a High School Math teacher conducted with his student. He modified the internal connections of some calculators to make them produce erroneous results and provided them to his students without letting them know of this manipulation.

After proposing a long and complex arithmetic operation on the board he challenged the class to compute it firstly by hand and then using the calculator. In the event that the results were different they had to decide which one was the correct answer.

The results did indeed differ from each other and guess which answer was chosen by most of the students to be the correct one? The calculator, off course.

Do we trust machines more than humans?

 A glimpse of the future

One of my favorite Science Fiction authors is Isaac Asimov, who portraits in one of his novels a typical scenario that I believe is not so far from becoming true.

In a distant future, there is a central computer in every house which provides answers to all your questions. What is very interesting is that people did not know how to make simple arithmetic operations, simply because they didn’t need to, the central computer would provide the answer for them.

 Don’t we Google everything up many times a day to find answers to our questions?

Well, some years back a University colleague told me how while applying for a College entrance exam in US he was given the task to approximate a square root of a long decimal number. During his junior school years he was taught how to actually calculate it using a manual method. He therefore had no problem in giving the exact answer and not just an approximation. The college professor, who was not aware of this method was impressed and asked the student to teach him how to do it…

Are we loosing basic arithmetic knowledge?

 Food for thought

Everything around us tends to be driving us every day more and more to a “Black Box Paradox” technology consumer society. The giant corporations with their strategic acquisitions are concentrating all the technology “know how” of our civilization. Engineers and technologists who are not part of these companies are becoming simple users. Ordinary people are becoming slaves of the new systems while having the illusion of freedom.

The question is how all this will impact our current and future generations.

The Black Box Paradox society that we are living in resembles a modern engineered drug that provides comfort and ecstasy for today and dependency and uncertainty for tomorrow.

by Pablo Olivera Brizzio (POB)

References used in this article:

(1) Extracted from http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/american_english/black%2Bbox

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