It sounded very promising: the futuristic Concorde airplane halved flight time during its operations and was marked as world’s fastest airliner. However, on July 25, 2000, an Air France Concorde crashed upon take-off, killing all on board and four people on the ground. For me, as an aviation fanatic, this day still feels as a black day in the history of aircraft innovation, and I realise how the process of aircraft development has not been a linear process in which new technologies directly were embraced by society. Until the Concorde crash in 2000, aircraft innovation seemed boundless. Aviation history officially started with ‘lighter than air aviation’ in 1783, when brothers Montgolfier demonstrated the unmanned hot-air balloon.
Later, in the late 18th century, the first powered flights were introduced with ‘heavier than air aviation,’ and since the end of World War II civil aviation and digital aircraft systems have been rapidly emerging (Grant, 2003). This essay briefly discusses past and current developments in aviation and explains how the airliner has been socially constructed through time, illustrated by two concepts: the actor-network theory and the black box theory. Actor-network theoryThe actor-network theory (ANT) aims to understand science through connections and interactions between humans and non-humans by viewing them as equal actors, in a way that they both can influence others (Law 1992).
According to ANT, no facts are true or approach reality; only by studying interactions in society, scientists can find out how reality is constructed (Latour, 1999). The process of building reality, based on actors and interrelations, is in ANT known as the process of translation (Callon, 1986). ANT focuses on how interactions are established and the effects they have. These interactions can be viewed as a network, which clarify established interactions and influential forces. It is not possible to remove one actor from the network, as the network then will collapse (Sismondo 2010). Science and technology are constantly intertwined in the relationship between actors, constructing situations in which humans and non-humans interact. The aviation environment is considered very complex with many social and technical interrelationships, making airlines a human construct with many influential forces.
For instance, nowadays airliners have become a network between users (human; passengers, pilots, engineers) and the airliner itself (non-human; technology). Their connection would be inexistent if there was no human need for global transportation, and no purpose would be present without the airliner. When the construct of airliners is closer examined, many different groupings can be found that shape network of the airliner. For instance, human programming actors have formed a network in which engineers have created the airliner, and non-human technology has created the air-to-ground communication between air traffic controllers and airliners. In addition, passengers, cabin attendants and pilots form a socio-economic human network with expectations on service and safety while the aircraft takes off, flies, and lands using complex non-human programming actors to control the airplane trajectory.
Black boxANT views network builders as the primary actors who attempt to interpret the process of network construction. As such, these network builders are usually engineers and scientist, who attempt to “open the black box” of science and technology by tracing the complex relationships that exist between society and technology. Opening the black box of technology leads the way to an investigation of the ways in which a variety of social aspects and technical elements are associated and come together as a black box. Most of the time, humans are not aware of the processes that lead to the establishment of technology. In general, input and output are known, but the contents and behaviour of technology are considered common knowledge. For utilising technology, it is not ‘necessary’ to comprehend its internal complexity, which is why the unknown processes are referred to as a black box (Sismondo 2010). Black boxing science and technology is about the processes that are crucial for achieving a specific outcome, and, according to Latour (1999), black boxing is the way to success of an artefact, as it makes complexity invisible and lets its users solely focus on inputs and outputs. To illustrate this in the airliner case, it is clear that pilots are able to control an airplane.
However, despite this knowledge, only few people are aware of the internal complexity of an airplane and have a deeper understanding of aviation technology. As described earlier, airline innovation has developed into a highly complex technological and social system. In the earlier days, when the hot-air balloon was a breakthrough in society, the processes of aviation were significantly clearer; if an aircraft contained a volume in its structure that was a gas lighter than air, the air would be moved. Now, a few centuries later, the internal activity of an aircraft has become too complex to understand for most humans: the airliner has become black boxed. The black boxing of the airliner has been endorsed by the increasingly complex aviation engineering and the growing need and desire to travel safe and fast worldwide.
Through time, aviation has developed from trial-and-error hot-air balloons into civilized aircrafts for the global transportation of humans and cargo; the competences of the airliner have increased as designers and pilots introduced float planes and the passenger aircraft. In summary, ANT and black box both demonstrate the social construction of the airliner. ANT can be used as an analytical framework to understand the complex network and interactions of the airliner, which are created by both human and non-human actors. People are aware of how to use and control an airliner; however, without notion of the fundamental processes. Hence, aviation technology is considered a black box.
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