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Understanding the Air Age: Extracting a Culture of Aviation (June 2013): The Black Box

By Guillaume de Syon

The Black Box

Though associated with aviation, “black box” as used here refers to the internal workings of the machine.  It is important to note that there exists a tension in the history of technology over how much should be devoted to these inner workings.  After all, does culture affect how engineers work?  Three examples suggest it does.  Eric Schatzberg, for example, shows in Wings of Wood, Wings of Metal: Culture and Technical Choice in American Airplane Materials, 1914-1945 how metal assumed a symbolic importance in American aeronautics, displacing wood in the interwar years even though the case had not been made for switching away from materials that were tested and worked effectively.  In What Engineers Know and How They Know It: Analytical Studies from Aeronautical History, Walter G. Vincenti also shows that an intellectual process exists to train aeronautical engineers beyond the textbooks in acquiring, maintaining, and expanding knowledge.  In Aircraft Stories: Decentering the Object in Technoscience, John Law, on the other hand, while discussing the design of aircraft, suggests an alternative to SCOT in the form of actor-network theory (ANT) as a means to offer a more precise social scientific approach to understanding how the process functions.  As aviation becomes a subject of interest to non-engineers, however, more and more studies overlook the black box and assume its existence without fully interrogating it.  This is partly because of the great complexity of the contextual history of flight.