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Steampunk black box

Posted by Joshua Glenn  August 1, 2007 09:06 PM

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Sao Paulo, July 18, 2007

"Slow down, slow down, slow down!"

"I can't, I can't!"

"Turn, turn, turn! Oh no!"

At a congressional hearing in Brazil today, the transcript of pilots' final exchanges before a commercial jet overshot the runway at Sao Paulo's Congonhas airport in July, hit buildings, and exploded -- killing some 200 people -- was read into the record. That's an excerpt from the transcript, above.*

Safety investigators have already recovered the jet's cockpit voice recorder (CVR), which is where the transcript comes from, and presumably they are also carefully studying another "black box," too: the jet's flight data recorder (FDR), which records the operating data from a plane's systems, via sensors wired to switches in the cockpit, among other places.

OK, my grasp on the technology of FDRs is shaky. But now I've got an angle on black-box theory, thanks to "Babbage's Apparatus: Toward an Archaeology of the Black Box," an essay in the current issue of Grey Room, a quarterly journal devoted to the theorization of modern and contemporary architecture, art, media, and politics.

According to Greg Siegel, an assistant professor of Film and Media Studies at UC Santa Barbara, the black box has its origins in a "self-registering apparatus" for railroad trains -- a steampunk FDR, if you will, that made use of self-inking pens connected mechanically to different parts of a railway carriage, a spring-driven clock, and a thousand-foot-long roll of paper.

The apparatus was dreamed up in 1839 by the English mathematician/engineer Charles Babbage (one of the great ancestral figures of computing) in order to provide railways with "incorruptible witnesses of the immediate antecedents of any catastrophe." If the train crashed, that is, one could discern from Babbage's apparatus the train's rate of speed and force of traction, not to mention "vertical, lateral, and terminal vibrations."

Like a safety inspector poring over a downed jet's black box, Siegel interrogates Babbage's apparatus -- which wasn't put into use, incidentally, for over a century -- until it spills the beans. What does Siegel discover? Transportation-data recorders, past and present, are tools employed by a sinister-sounding "forensic-scientific rationality and imaginary" in order to "render visible, analyzable, and explicable the physical dynamics of inauspicious chance, to fix the forces of ruinous contingency...."

In other words, those of us who might be inclined to see plane and train crashes as evidence that the "normative rationality" that's made our industrialized, capitalist social order possible is not flawless (and therefore not natural, inevitable, eternal) are reassured -- again and again -- by black boxes, whose very existence is a declaration that normative rationality will surmount every disruption. So... back to business as usual! Nothing to see here, people.

This may also explain why we morbidly enjoy reading CVR transcripts. The very fact that we can find out what the pilots' last words were ("Oh no!") reassures us that there's nothing scary about flying -- and, by extension, our accelerated modern life.

* As of this writing, nobody is saying exactly what went wrong, but according to my friend Patrick Smith, a Somerville-based commercial pilot who writes Salon's popular "Ask the Pilot" column, the problem may have had something to do with the smooth runways at Congonhas.

"Most runways are laterally cut by thousands of evenly spaced grooves, which help drain water and improve traction," Smith explained in a recent column. But Congonhas's runways are smooth, for some reason, so there's a substantially increased danger of hydroplaning. Add in a mechanical failure of some kind -- apparently the jet's thrust reverser was disabled, or an engine throttle was in the wrong position -- and you've got a recipe for disaster.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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