Technological Object: Black Box

Amongst volumes on Dali, Francis Bacon and Helmut Newton, J.G. Ballard’s library also contained The Black Box (1984) edited by Malcolm MacPherson. The book is a collection of transcripts taken from the Flight Data Recorders of aeroplanes involved in “air disasters”.  These ‘black boxes’, consist of a central recording medium (first wire, then tape, now currently digital matter) sealed in a steel outer casing that is robust enough to survive high impact, intense heat and immersion in water. The devices are typically installed into a plane’s tail assembly in order to record in-flight instrument data and cockpit dialogue. In the event of a crash the units can, in theory, be recovered intact from the wreckage in order to reconstruct the sequence of events – computational and conversational – that preceded the accident.

The Flight Data Recorder has been an industry standard since 1960. Versions have been in use since 1939 but mainly in the aircraft research industry. It was first outlined for use in civilian aviation with a specific post-crash application in 1954 by David Warren, an aeronautical researcher at the Australian Defense Department. His paper, “A Device for Assisting Investigation into Aircraft Accidents” streamlined the problematic photographic functionality of previous models and gave rise to the 1957 prototype, the Flight Memory Unit. At this point in the object’s history, ‘black box’ can be revealed as something of a misnomer: the devices were designed to be, and have remained, bright orange to facilitate ease of identification and retrieval on the ground. The term seems to have stuck due to journalistic shorthand and possibly as a residue of its initial photographic incarnation. Early models were essentially small, sealed darkrooms not designed with crash salvage in mind.

Although technically imprecise, ‘black box’ nevertheless carries accuracy as regards the imaginative significance invested in the device. In circuit design, ‘black box’ describes a component that is understood not on the basis of its mechanism but in relation to its input, output and processional characteristics, the manner in which the input changes as a result of its transfer through the device. Similarly, the Flight Data Recorder often occupies the interstitial position common to the symbolic reception of many recording devices: it hovers as an invisible mediator somewhere between operation and content. Frequently brandished for the press at the edge of an accident zone, the recorder is often taken as a talismanic marker that signals not the start of an analysis but the completion of an investigation. A solid state amongst the residue of the plane, the black box functions as a perfect synecdoche: one surviving part that at a human and material level, can reassemble the disintegrated whole. Once it is found, the external reportage can withdraw as the public narrative of the plane crash has, in a sense, come to an end.

John Varley’s short story ‘Air Raid’ (1977) and later novel Millennium (1983) are both built upon this symbolism of holistic resurrection. In each, a black box is recovered containing a recording that analeptically opens out at an exponential rate. It narrativizes the crash central to each text, as well as a panoramic scenario of time travel and impending catastrophe. Varley’s box is a narrative engine that quickly disappears under the weight of its contained significance. For Ballard, his attraction to the device is also connected to its narrative results. Writing in a 1998 review of MacPherson’s second edition, he explains that his fascination with the transcripts lies in their presentation of slowly accumulating decline:

What stands out […] is how quietly catastrophe creeps up on its victims. A gradual fall in hydraulic pressure, an unexplained loss of fuel, a hint of smoke in a lavatory, are noted half     an hour before the looming crisis.

However, what is also emphasised in Ballard’s account is the informational poverty that the neutral ear of the recorder necessarily retains. As Iain Sinclair noted when describing the myth of Ballard’s own archive, ‘nothing intimate survive[s]’:

 […] the transcripts convey only the sketchiest impression of the atmosphere in a stricken aircraft as the captain and crew wrestle with their controls. While one crippled system   collapses on another, horns blare, lights flash and recorded voices shout: “Pull up! Pull up!”

Yet no one panics. Even in the final moments, as the doomed aircraft heads towards the ground at 400 miles per hour, only a stoical regret is sounded, like the simple comment, “We’re dead”, made by the co-pilot of a Lockheed cargo plane in the seconds before the end.

That final announcement encapsulates the (im) possibility of the black box. Along with examples such as Edison’s spiritualist hopes for his phonograph and Konstantin Raudive’s fascination with Electronic Voice Phenomena, the imaginative economy of the Flight Data Recorder helps to maintain the post-mortem fantasy associated with recording media. It seems to work against annihilation by preserving voice and experience in the aftermath of their destruction. And yet, what Ballard highlights is the skeletal, denotation of ‘the end’. It exists and can, of course, only exist as a statement of an impending event rather than a survival of the event itself. The investigative specificity of the Flight Data Recorder coupled with the nature of its most significant material foregrounds the operational reality that underpins the projected phantasy:  a capacity for re-play rather than mediumship.

—James Riley

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8 Responses to Technological Object: Black Box

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  3. A quick google ngrams search suggests that ‘black box’ begins to become more widespread in the early 1950s, but of course this doesn’t distinguish between the term’s various meanings.

    Of course, nowadays the flight data recorder’s more likely to be crucial in an investigation than the cockpit voice recorder; Current FAA regs require modern aaircraft to record 88 different measurements, including the position of the main controls, the and forces exerted on them. These ghostly traces of the pilot’s touch in the cockpit can give a clearer picture of what’s going on than the often confused audio recordings.

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  5. Steve Connor says:

    The term ‘black box’ seems to have arisen in the late 1940s in the world of electronic systems, to describe a system of which one could precisely specify the input and the output, but might have, or need have, no knowledge of what happens in the middle (the ‘black box’) to bring about the conversion. Michel Serres evokes the idea of the black box repeatedly through his work, often to characterise the conversion of energy into information:

    Take a black box. To its left, or before it, there is the world. To its right, or after it, travelling along certain circuits, there is what we call information. The energy of things goes in: disturbances of the air, shocks and vibrations, heat, alcohol or ether salts, photons… Information comes out, and even meaning. We do not always know where this box is located, nor how it alters what flows through it, nor which Sirens, Muses or Bacchantes are at work inside; it remains closed to us. However, we can say with certainty that beyond this threshold, both of ignorance and perception, energies are exchanged, on their usual scale, at the levels of the world, the group and cellular biochemistry; and that on the other side of this same threshold information appears: signals, figures, languages, meaning. Before the box, the hard; after it, the soft. Michel Serres, The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies (I), trans. Margaret Sankey and Peter Cowley (London: Continuum, 2008), p. 129.

    Eric Partridge suggests that it is in use from 1945 in RAF slang to signify any mysterious, clever piece of equipment on board a plane (interestingly, he says it was first applied to a device that allowed bomb aimers to see through clouds or darkness). Presumably the term gets transferred to one specific device, the flight recorder, not because the insides of such a thing are particularly intricate or mysterious (it’s just a sound recorder), but because they are made to be inaccessible. But, in either case, the ‘black box’ seems to point to a new phase of machinery, one in which machines, traditionally things which can be made fully explicit, and opened up to show their workings, start to have the same magical inaccessibility as selves, persons or souls.

  6. Ned Allen says:

    Thank you, James; this is fascinating. I’m particularly interested by the black box’s mixed capacity – the idea that a ‘sealed darkroom’ might also, in some sense, operate like a sound studio. I wonder, is there any connection to made between the black box and the psychotherapist’s Dictaphone? I’m thinking of the kinds of trauma associated with Anne Sexton, and of the moment her therapy sessions were made available for public consumption. The closeted material of a Dictaphone also seems to exist, in your words, ‘at the edge of an accident zone’.

  7. James Riley says:

    Sinclair was using the image of the black box in Ghost Milk as part of a cluster of observations / metaphors to describe the ‘mystery’ of Ballard’s written and textual archive. It is Ballard who is generalizing about the content of the recordings in his review-essay of MacPherson. Both register, I think, the deep symbolism that the device has accumulated. Despite the range of material recorded and the fluctuations you rightly point out, the Flight Data Recorder has become associated, almost to the point of shorthand, with a presumed content and narrative of disaster. Hence the pervasive reference to it as a ‘black box’ rather than the FDR: ‘black box’ carries immediate associations of death, termination, coffins and possibly wider associations such as Pandora’s box.

  8. Alex Houen says:

    Sinclair generalises too much in suggesting that black box transcripts show a uniformity of cockpit atmosphere and response. The fluctuations of those things are often manifold in such transcripts, as evidences. For example:

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