Building the Black Box: Cyberneticians and Complex Systems

Elizabeth R. Petrick

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


In the 1950s and 1960s, cyberneticians defined and utilized a concept previously described by electronic engineers: the black box. They were interested in how it might aid them, as both a metaphor and as a physical or mathematical model, in their analysis of complex human-machine systems. The black box evolved as they applied it in new ways, across a range of scientific fields, from an unnamed concept involving inputs and outputs, to digital representations of the human brain, to white boxes that might be used to replicate black boxes. The diversity of understandings of the black box reflected the diversity of scientific perspectives and goals brought under the label of cybernetics. In this paper, I examine how cyberneticians drew upon the black box in their personal writings and publications. My goal is to unpack what the black box meant to these theorists as a starting framework from which we may understand the initial shape of the black box.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)575-595
Number of pages21
JournalScience Technology and Human Values
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 1 2020
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Anthropology
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Philosophy
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Economics and Econometrics
  • Human-Computer Interaction


  • black box
  • computer technology
  • cybernetics
  • history of technology
  • metaphor
  • modeling


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