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Opening the Black Box


In the following sections, I offer some commentary about my students’ video documentary, making connections with some of the thing-oriented theory I have offered above. While these comments are not meant as definitive, nor representative of discussions I had with students, they do highlight the ways in which we can see cell phones as powerful actants within complex networks of forces.

The puzzled reactions included at the beginning of the video certainly show that the questions we asked caused our documentary participants to think at length about their answers (PDF transcript here). Their stalling verbalizations expressed the kinds of thinking that we had hoped would occur when participants were asked some of the more unusual questions. As the following video represents, a fair amount of the over 200 minutes of video collected for this project comprised moments of cognitive uncertainty.

We can take these reactions as evidence that participants in the video actively looked at the black boxes they had set up through their everyday use of cell phones. In order to facilitate the more mundane tasks of connecting with friends, looking up information, and seeking directions, for example, cell phone users seem to bracket off both their habits and their knowledge of how cell phones complete certain tasks. Whether we like the metaphor of “black box” or “black noise,” we see that it takes mental work to consider some of the relationships and interactions that may have been previously hidden behind layers of habit and differently directed attention. These moments stand out precisely because they showcase that it takes work to unpack these relations.