Black box

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Black Boxes- the "hiding" of aspects of an artefact- should be understood as both literal (in the case of most computers, including the NeXT Step), as well as metaphorical in regards to the artefact's history, possible uses, and technical considerations decided during its development. Media artifacts typically present themselves as black boxes- regardless of how much of their "guts" are visible, they are taken as cohesive, finished wholes to be used for a set purpose. Using the technology in a way not intended or against its design, the Hack, requires to a certain extent the opening of the black box surrounding the technology.

A prime example of this is the "obvious," i.e. those aspects of the technology that are used due to the particular historical context of the development of the artefact. These aspects, however, were not always obvious, and in most cases of dead media, no longer seem all that obvious anymore.

Following Bruno Latour, scientific and technological progress includes both the opening and closing of "black boxes". The opening of black boxes involves the questioning or destabilizing of settled knowledge- even if this knowledge is of the lack of knowledge- and proposing alternative solutions/explanations to the problematic at hand. For example, the Hollerith Cards opened the black box of knowledge regarding the tabulating of census data. The closing of black boxes entails the settling of knowledge into fact- the inclusion of the arbitrary into a technology was a conscious, debatable (and in most instances, probably debated) decision during development, but once settled these choices are taken for granted. QWERTY is an example of a black boxed aspect of computers, although multiple attempts from its inception have tried to pry open this box.

At its core, inquiries into dead media involves the opening of black boxes- it is the questioning not only of the material object, but also the socio-historical circumstances of its development and use. "Black box" is also the term used for the instrument that records flight information that can be collected and analyzed after a plane crash. In many ways, this may be a particularly striking metaphor for the inquiries pursued in the Dead Media Archive project.

Methodological Questions:


Latour, Bruno. 1987. Science in action : how to follow scientists and engineers through society. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.