The black-boxing of a technology is different than the incremental emergence of “taken-for-grantedness”

Below is an excerpt about black boxing and taken-for-grantedness, which I wrote with Fabio Rojas years ago:

The black-boxing of a technology is different than the incremental emergence of “taken-for-grantedness,” which comes from writers such as Schutz (1967) and Berger and Luckmann (1966). They argue that knowledge in everyday life is taken for granted by individuals as reality, “but [that] not all aspects of reality are equally unproblematic” (p. 24).  They provide an example germane to this discussion:

  • …suppose that I am an automobile mechanic who is highly knowledgeable about all American-made cars. Everything that pertains to the latter is a routine, unproblematic facet of my everyday life. But one day someone appears in the garage and asks me to repair his Volkswagen. I am now compelled to enter the problematic world of foreign-made cars (p. 24).

Technologies, they contend, like those related to car repair, get taken for granted over time and through expertise. But by looking at technologies as black-boxes, scholars can gain a fresh perspective on the institutionalization of technology by emphasizing how stable technologies stabilize human networks, rather than how routinization results in a technology’s disappearance for organizational actors. Returning to Berger and Luckmann’s example, as a black-box, automobiles and the networks of dependence and exchange built-up around them are concealed (or ignored). Further, the patterns of human behavior that make a mechanic’s garage the one place to fix broken cars is missed because of the emphasis on how technologies get “taken-for-granted.”

Seems Berger and Luckmann’s (1966) old work on the social construction of reality might find new use distinguishing blacking-boxing from institutionalization. Also, please note: If there was one thing that early Latourian thinking and the new institutionalism in organizational analysis were looking to unlock was how something gets sealed-up and stabilized over time to the point of being taken-for-granted as real, true, or rational. Look back at the early pages of Latour’s book on Pasteur — it opens with the image of Rue Pasteur and asks how did we get this … a good question, no?

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About Nicholas

Associate Professor of Sociology, Environmental Studies, and Science and Technology Studies at Penn State, Nicholas mainly writes about understanding the scientific study of states and, thus, it is namely about state theory. Given his training in sociology and STS, he takes a decidedly STS-oriented approach to state theory and issues of governance.

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