Sergio Sismondo on black-boxing and taken-for-grantedness

Concern over the relationship between processes of black-boxing and gradual taken-for-grantedness has been expressed a bunch of times on this blog — here, here, and here.

Gearing-up to teach STS to mainly engineering students today has me reading Sismondo’s intro text — and in Chapter 11, on the topic of “controversies”, he lays out the terms as follows:

Science and technology produce black-boxes, or fact and artifacts that are taken for granted; in particular, their histories are usually seen as irrelevant after good facts and successful artifacts are established (2010:120).

It is nice that the world of ideas in science is not auotomatically labeled “taken for granted” (when facts are momentarily settled) and the world of things in engineering is not automatically labeled “black boxed” (when artifacts are momentarily settled) so that the distinction is not reified (i.e., that facts are only taken for granted and that machines are only black boxed).

However, the two terms seem to be synonyms to Sismondo — do you agree with Sergio?

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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.

One thought on “Sergio Sismondo on black-boxing and taken-for-grantedness

  1. It is tempting to associate the difference between taken-for-granted and black-boxed with our earlier discussion about behavior vs. knowledge as a point of analytical reference. Taken-for-grantedness obviously has a knowledge ring to it, black-boxed is more unspecific with respect to the kind of container (although it would be odd to speak, for example, of a certified teacher as a black-boxed educational tool). Black-boxedness does not appear to require a reference to beliefs at all, so I believe (pun intended) the differentiation of taken-for-grantedness as associated more with ideas and black-boxedness also to apply to the construction of artifacts to generally hold well enough. However, as you imply in the second part of your post, there is probably no need to be overly restrictive in the use of the terms, since there is always the user of an artifact – and just about from there we take it over to our earlier discussion of SKAT, knowledge and behaviorism…


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