by Mary Altman
In speculative fiction, the term "black-box theory" is typically used to describe a device of which we know or care very little about its inner workings. The entire focus is on its input/output behavior—the result rather than the reasoning. The term is used in aviation (the black box records the last minutes of airplane flight in the event of a crash), engineering, computing, philosophy, psychology and cryptography. Sociologist Bruno Latour describes the black box theory as "the way scientific and technical work is made invisible by its own success. ... Thus, paradoxically, the more science and technology succeed, the more opaque and obscure they become."
Over the years, speculative fiction has adopted the black box theory as its own, using it to create a shortcut for authors of both hard and soft science fiction. It is a device that allows authors to stop reinventing the wheel with every new series—or, in literal terms, it allows authors to stop reinventing the hyperdrive. The black box represents all the necessary tropes of space exploration and speculative fiction writing. Faster than light travel, artificial intelligence, communication over vast distances… These are the things that many authors find absolutely necessary to carry their books; however, because they have become so much a part of the collective consciousness—because they have been used over and over until the reader is willing to accept them as fact without a science-heavy explanation—they have become the background noise of the genre. Most simply: it doesn’t matter how it works. It only matters that it works.
That, in essence, is the black box theory. In speculative fiction, it is the willing suspension of disbelief. It is the automatic acceptance of certain genre tropes. It is, most importantly, a tool that the author may use so that less time is spent expounding on faster than light travel yet again and is instead focused on the meat of the story.
What’s in the box? It doesn’t matter. Mr. Crusher, set a course for our next destination, warp six. Engage.