Forgive me if I forget during this post that I am not writing for my Information Management blog, but this topic is currently crossing both areas of interest. I usually like it when something I am doing at home, in the workshop or in my otherwise free time spills over into my day-job. In this case, not so much. The day-job issue is ‘information governance’ – Please, stick with me, I won’t say it again, I promise.
It, the thing I promised not to say, is a big hairy problem that infiltrates every aspect of business in the way that Bittersweet takes over a healthy shrub. In order to work through issues like this, one, well actually everyone has to roll up their sleeves and get dirty. While it isn’t possible with something like Bittersweet, I want to avoid the problem by following the technical equivalent of Homer Simpson’s campaign promise “let someone else do it.” In other words, embed that stuff in the system. Bury it in a black box and let me do my job.
In my experience, black boxes are viewed from two different perspectives. From one view, black boxes represent things to figure out, i.e. “what’s in the box?” From the other view, black boxes are things to be grudgingly trusted.
In 1975, I took a Multi-Disciplinary Studies course in problem solving at West Virginia University. We worked in groups and we worked through problems as a team. The first problem we were given was a black box. Literally, the problem was a black box. The box had two sticks (Pick-up Sticks if you are old enough to remember when toys weren’t digital) passing through in the east-west direction and two more in the north-south direction. The box also rattled when shook. Our task was to describe the interior of the box without opening it.
I’ve performed this kind of exercise numerous times during my career in data processing. I have inherited code (source code of systems) written by programmers who have retired/quit/been fired/died and I’ve had to figure out what the code did. I’ve been asked to ‘exercise’ systems (where I had no access to the code) to reverse engineer what the code “must be doing” behind the scenes. I call this ‘digital archeology’ because sometimes, even when I had the code, I had to ask myself what the original programmer was thinking. Ironically, this kind of sleuth work represents some of the most fun that I’ve had at work. But, sometimes the question was: “what were they thinking?” and sometimes it was: “what were they thinking?”
The other kind of black box is the type we all have experience with; the “new feature” on some device that is marketed as making our lives easier/better/faster/safer. Some of these, like the automatic S’more maker are things that should never have been created. Others are things that became necessary because we actually can’t deal with the stuff in the box. The box is too complicated. My favorite is the check-engine light.
While this might be the most universally hated symbol of modern technology, we actually do need it today. I was already driving when the check engine light was first introduced. Back then, the light seemed like a cost-cutting-income-driving-combo-insult to consumers. We were deprived of gauges that most of us understood, and we had to swing by the dealer every time the light came on. Like many backyard mechanics, I simply took care of the problems on my own and drove around with the light on forever. That’s not the case today.
Truth be told, I have driven to the dealer only to be told that my gas cap wasn’t tight, but most of the time, if the light is on there’s a problem.
Last year I took the car to the dealer because the check-engine light had come on and the car had a funny smell. The smell was familiar, but I hadn’t smelled it in a long time – it smelled like burning oil. It turns out that the dealer had not replaced the oil fill cap when they did an oil change. Oil splashed out of the engine and slowly burned off. Over time, enough oil remained and fouled the Oxygen sensor.
That sounds like an easy thing to notice and repair. It would have been, if all of that stuff wasn’t buried beneath some big hunk of plastic.
That was a simple thing. But the check-engine light responds to several hundred error conditions throughout the car. There’s no way that you could outfit a modern car with enough gauges to track everything and virtually no way to address the conditions without hours and hours of training. While I’m sure there are lots of backyard mechanics who resist accepting that notion – I’m over it. I’m sure pilots resisted fly-by-wire systems when they were first introduced, and I’m guessing that most pilots love those systems today. It comes down to either sticking with things that are simpler, learning more and more about complex things or trusting what’s in the box. I don’t have an across the board answer, but the more my job depends on complex systems, the more I like black boxes.
By the way, the box in my class at WVU rattled because there were hard plastic rings around the sticks at two intersections. Also, if you’re wondering: yes, the dealer made all the repairs for free. They even gave me $25 worth of coupons for future service.