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Black Boxes

My life is filled with black boxes.

When I was a kiddy, there were loads of things I didn’t understand. Closed systems where I could see what went in, and what came out, but had no idea of what happened in the middle. This included everything from how one went about acquiring money to how food was produced – the world was full of things that were completely mysterious.

As I’ve aged, the number of black boxes in my life has stayed about the same. Sure, I can now explain a lot of things that I once couldn’t, but I’ve become aware of yet more mysterious things – and some of the stuff that used to be completely unexplained is now made up of a sequence of black boxes (I now know what’s inside a computer, but don’t ask me how a power supply works!).

It’s always pleasing to see inside a box for the first time. I’ve really enjoyed learning first aid, in part because it’s shone some light into human biology, an area which has always been a bit murky for me. Learning more about how to efficiently interact with databases, how other people do their jobs (and what software they need to help them) and how to do effective process improvement have been some of the greatest joys of my professional life so far.

That said, though, I think that having black boxes is essential for keeping people sane. The world is too big and too complicated for anyone to try and understand all of it. You need to be able to have some parts which you know you don’t know anything about, and trust that other people have got your back. And there are always going to be systems that, for one reason or another, you just can’t comprehend.

Right now, my daughter is something of a black box to me – I’m learning more and more about how to keep her happy, but I’m having to learn it by trial and error, because for some reason nobody’s written any tutorials. It’s hard to accept that until she learns to express her needs and wants in an easy to understand way (if she ever does…), then I just have to treat her as a closed system. But I’m trying to learn to go with the flow and accept the limits of my knowledge.

One reply on “Black Boxes”

Awesome post, love. A bit of a collision between personal experience and philosophy.

I’m not completely convinced that sanity demands black boxes, but I can see that argument. Building simplified models (or accepting the simplified models offered to us – the black boxes) certainly feels to me like something that the mind does to retain sanity… but it seems to me that the requirement for these models is perhaps based only on the existence of other models. In other words: it’s my inclination that we only need black boxes because we have black boxes. If there were a way to instantaneously acquire all of the knowledge we desired, on demand, I don’t think that this would necessarily lead to insanity.

Not in everybody, anyway.

What I’m saying is, I guess, that I’d volunteer for the experiment.

Anyway – nice post. 😉

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