Here goes part two of this essay series, Black Squares, Black Boxes, and Black Holes. This idea has been snowballing ever since Blackout Tuesday. And like the best kinds of snowballs, it’s sticky — globbing onto everything else floating around in my head. This has made it a lot more work than I initially planned for, and a lot longer too — so I’ll split it into more than three parts (not sure how many yet). Anyways, I think you’ll enjoy it. I hope I’m right :)
Part one focused on Blackout Tuesday — what the spread of the black squares tells us about digital space, and how they inadvertently “black boxed” both the movement they emerged from, and the adspace-maximizing algorithms that propelled them. If you haven’t read it yet, feel free to check that out first.
Today I’ll shift the focus from black squares to black boxes, exploring their ubiquity in modern life, and the surprising forms they come in. If I succeed, you’ll have a new addition to your sense-making toolbox. If I don’t, you’ll have spent 10 minutes reading about spaghetti.
If you enjoy it, go ahead and share with a friend or two — maybe it’ll spark a convo. Away we go…
There’s always more to the world than meets the eye (or ears, hands, or nose). This is always going to be true, no matter how smart you think you are.
But fear not, black boxes are here to save the day! You don’t have to know how a car works to get yourself to work.
Black boxes come in many shapes and sizes, and understanding them gets successively more challenging — like video game boss battles.
It’s not the “black” or “box-like” qualities that make black boxes confusing, it’s how they’re intertwined with other black boxes.
All boxes are black, and that's a good thing
I don't have many memories from kindergarten, but one was so unsettling it sticks with me to this day: the sensory game where you stick your hand into a box and guess what’s inside. Could be anything, but for me and seemingly everyone else, the box contained slimy spaghetti noodles. If anything were “anti-ASMR” in this world, the unsettling feeling of those noodles would surely be it.
If your kindergarten teacher never subjected you to this wicked sorcery, maybe you’ve encountered it at a Halloween party — blindly handling what you’re told is zombie brains… equally traumatic.
But what makes this a suitable activity for a classroom of toddlers? If the same terror arises in both observers — those who feel noodles and those who feel brains — then the real action must not be occurring in the boxes at all. But ironically, inside our brains.
A key milestone in an infant’s development is the acquisition of object permanence — an understanding that objects continue to exist, even when they aren’t seen, heard, smelt, or felt. An undeveloped sense of object permanence is the source of both joy in peek-a-boo, and of distress in “I got your nose.” The subsequent moments of realization — seeing your parents’ faces again, or finding that your uncle didn’t actually steal your nose — instill a lesson we too often take for granted as adults: that there’s more to the world than meets the eye.
So what does all this have to do with spaghetti noodles? Well, if object permanence is the recognition that familiar things persist even when they can’t be seen, then a step further is the awareness of things never seen in the first place. For the kindergarten class, the mystery box activity is a practice of extrapolation. By connecting tactile input with past experiences of watching mom or dad cook dinner, it’s possible to deduce the box contains spaghetti noodles. No unboxing necessary. Omniscience isn’t a prerequisite of clarity; kindergartners know it best.
The infamous spaghetti noodle mystery box epitomizes a concept I introduced in part one: the black box — a system or object we can apply inputs to and measure outputs from, whilst limited in visibility of its inner workings. Taken literally, a black box is anything with a distinct inside and outside (hence, the “box”) and an opaque surface (hence, the “black”). This definition has been stretched and morphed every which way, but in all cases, the important factor is that observer can’t know exactly what’s going on inside. What slides through your fingertips feels just like spaghetti (or what you’d imagine spaghetti feels like), but until you open it up — ceasing its condition as a black box — you can’t be sure it’s not zombie brains.
The inability of observers to be certain of a black box’s contents isn’t restricted to children; it’s a key feature of modern life. From the coffee that gets you out of bed, to the car you drive to work (or not so much in these times…), a complete knowledge of all the variables at play is impossible. Sure, maybe you know how to change a tire, or how many cups of coffee start making you jittery. But this functional knowledge is a far cry from a total understanding of human biology, or the physics of a combustion engine. And if you define understanding strictly, even the experts can’t know anything with absolute certainty. We have working models of the world, and those do just fine most of the time.
Cocooned in black boxed bliss, we get along with our days, trusting our coffee won’t poison us and our car won’t explode. And with the leftover cognitive horsepower, we can focus on more important matters, like mouthing off the asshole who cut us off on the 110 (in this scenario, the active black box isn’t your car, but it’s the other driver — think about it!). For better or worse, ignorance simplifies our lives. Unless you’re a domain expert, or Bradley Cooper from Limitless, black boxes makes life easier, not harder.
When a box doesn’t look like a box
As you might imagine, the black boxes we face change with age. Like rising through algebra, pre-calc and calculus, we graduate out of elementary black boxes, and new, more complex ones take their place. Eventually, the spaghetti box loses its allure, and other angles become more interesting — like how the same exercise can be used to study the black box of childhood development. These “grown-up” black boxes are never as cut and dry (literally) as the spaghetti box.
Perspective determines which boxes appear “black,” and which ones are visible at all. We sharpen our sensory acuity and build deeper catalogues of past experience, and the boxes surrounding us mature in tandem — gaining slighter shades of opacity and more nuanced inside/outside distinctions. What if you’re inside the black box? Or if the box is nested Russian doll-style in other boxes? What if the box is so familiar that you don’t recognize it’s a box at all?
Everything we do (yes, everything) involves a black box in some form or another. Institutional black boxes, as I’ll call them for now, are those so pervasive we hardly notice them — such as language, capitalism, and anything ending in "industrial complex." Their inputs and outputs are generally predictable, like how a phonetic sound evokes a certain meaning, or how a dollar equates to spending power.
But while it allows us to function, this predictability doesn’t help us understand how they operate as systems. Entire professions are devoted to understanding and mechanizing these large-scale black boxes — economists, doctors, physicists, linguists, and the like. But still, their behaviors often appear most mysterious at the expert-level. The opacity of these boxes (usually) doesn’t arise from deliberate obfuscation, but from sheer complexity.
Perhaps the clearest example of an institutional black box is democracy. We citizens (the demos) can’t possibly understand all the factors impacting our civic life, much less how to pull these levers to maximize prosperity. So we elect leaders to handle it for us — whom we trust will act in our best interests. For this to work, ongoing education is needed so we understand what our best interests are in the first place, and which candidate might best realize them. Both of these democratic pillars — citizens’ education and leaders’ accountability — seem to be imperative in the responsible deployment of any black box. But unfortunately, they’re both far from guaranteed.
Democracy isn’t so simple as the electorate and the elected; there are lobbyists, corporate interests, foreign nations, existential problems, Russian bots, huge egos… And all of these extraneous variables are, of course, black boxes in their own rite. The muddling of inputs and outputs makes it difficult to tell where one box ends and another begins. Pledging to a carbon tax is a great way to raise citizens’ quality of life, but it’s a bad way to raise a campaign budget. Both campaign finance and climate change are at least semi-understood challenges, but accomplishing them together is near impossible.
The true dilemma with black boxes isn’t that they’re black, or that they’re boxes. It’s that they are — like spaghetti noodles — tangled.
Read part three
All Boxes are Black (essay)
The Construction of Reality in the Child (research paper)
Object Permanence in babies (video)