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Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Part 3 of Black Squares, Black Boxes, and Black Holes

Part 2: Tangled

Part 1: Blackout


Invisible is dangerous

But not like a gun or a drunk driver. Invisible is dangerous like poison. It doesn’t have a sharp blade, an open flame, or jagged shrapnel. And it’s not dangerous because a bright orange sign proclaimed it so; but precisely the opposite. Invisible goes under the radar and over our heads, engaging no defenses and no fight-or-flight moment.

Because invisible doesn’t invoke urgency, less visible matters naturally seem distant, even nonexistent. What’ll get first dibs on my attention — the Amazon rainforest burning for months on end, or the candle burning in my living room? Probably the candle; not because it’s more important than the rainforest, but because it’s more readily visible.

Visibility almost never exists on a level playing field. Why is SkyMall staring you in the face on a long flight? And why is Starbucks conveniently placed on the morning-commute-heavy side of the road? Particularly in commercial spaces, what you see is rarely coincidence. At any given moment, more than a few brands bid fiercely for your eyes — whether via the “strike zone” of convenience store shelves, the head of your search results, or slices of your Instagram timeline. So visibility becomes a point of leverage for those with capital —a differentiator between winners and losers.

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Let’s rewind back to the candle and the rainforest. Who’s the winner there? For starters, it’s the company that sold me the candle. And as winners, they’re inclined to preserve the conditions that let them win. So the immense supply chain that turned crude oil, glass, and paper into a delightful candle (probably clearcutting a rainforest along the way) is deliberately made opaque to regulators and consumers like me. In other words, the box is kept black. With diminished visibility, the loser — the rainforest — is subject to further disadvantage. Thus, the black box preserves the existing divide between winners and losers.

But if you look a little closer, the winner-loser divide isn’t so black and white. Obviously I, as the owner of the candle, benefit from its black-boxedness. I can fill my living room with citrus blossom fragrances, blissfully ignorant of the polluted air it sends into the lungs of people and animals closer to the candle’s production. And though I may claim to support ecological policy reform, thereby aligning with the loser, my consumption choices say otherwise.

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Defense mechanisms

Cognitive dissonance is inescapable in a world of black boxes. While they’re often vital to societal functioning — like the black box of democracy, as discussed in part two — they’re not necessarily moral. Underneath their murky surfaces, we know, are plenty of things we don’t want to see. But since our very lifestyles have molded around them, exposing their inner workings would threaten the way we live. To ward off anxiety and guilt, we construct defense mechanisms (on individual and societal scales).

Take, for example, the moment you dispose of a piece of trash. From the moment it hits the bottom of the bin, a massive system comes to life — of garbage trucks, dumpsters, street cleaners, sanitation centers, and landfills — to whisk it out of your life as quickly as it came in. Or, it just lands on the side of the road…

In any case, our products come from and return to a sort of mental nowhereland; a cavity for unspoken thoughts to fester: “this doesn’t exist after I’m done with it,” or taken further, “the Earth is abundant.” Of course, these aren’t explicit views in our minds; they occupy the negative space — like shadows, or lies.

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And this is just for lifeless products. With human beings involved, you’d think we’d feel a greater sense of responsibility. But as demonstrated by the prison-industrial complex, we’re quite adept at dealing with people in the same callous, logistics-driven manner we deal with objects.

Cop cars fill the place of garbage trucks. Landfills become prisons. We thrust our pesky challenges as far as possible from the cozy suburbs, and guard them with barbed wire and strict visitation rules. Behind bars, we lock away the questions we don’t want to ask, as well as the societal shortcomings that made those bars necessary.

And like the candle/rainforest scenario, these black boxes produce winners and losers. Those in charge would like you to think that you — Mr. or Mrs. Upstanding Citizen — are the only winner. You can drive by inmates picking up trash on the side of the road, permitted to think: “those people belong there.” But as they pick up the scraps put there by people like you, the more complicated truth remains deep in a black box. Tucked away is not only the incarcerators’ obscene profiteering, but also the preexisting disparity — which made it more probable for you to be in the car than on the roadside

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Both the prison and the landfill serve as black box analogues. They are institutional voids, which perpetuate the same invisibilities that produced them. In the process, they carve out a negative space of shadows, lies, and unasked questions. And as this negative space crystallizes, power is encoded into narrative. Stories, after all, are the strongest defense mechanisms we have.

The glass slipper

If defense mechanisms work best when they’re invisible, and invisible is dangerous, then what does that say about stories? That they’re dangerous? Well, sort of. Stories are most dangerous when they’re invisible.

In their refined, packaged-up formats, stories are relatively benign. The danger in Disney fairy tales, for instance, stems from the societal narratives surrounding them — which they subtly reinforce. Cinderella, the movie, isn’t the problem; it’s the broader story of femininity, and the impossible challenge of fitting into the “glass slipper” of male expectations.

The symbols and mythology of a story, while potential tools for relaying the real issues at hand, also run the risk of obscuring those same issues. As a result, a story itself can be a sort of glass slipper. Beautiful, yet rigid; prompting conformity under the guise of transparency.

Because they’re so easy to perpetuate, stories are the most manipulative of all black boxes. And the protective shell of narrative too often lets injustice off the hook. If the content of a story doesn’t adequately address its context, a black box has been formed. These narrative black boxes, like the prison and the landfill, only reaffirm the conditions that produced them in the first place.

Mark Zuckerberg famously said: “A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” Albeit tone-deaf rhetorically (such as his default to dying and Africa), this is, in fact, a story. And it’s not actually about squirrels, nor people in Africa.

On the surface-level, it seems reminiscent of the candle/rainforest analogy — illustrating how we naturally prioritize what’s visible over what’s important. But Zuckerberg’s subtext is covertly self-reflexive. Visibility, according to the story, sits outside his locus of control. By focusing on a narrowly-defined “relevance” to our “interests,” he implies that all Facebook does is reflect our own natural tendencies. In a sly erasure of context, the squirrel analogy obscures Facebook’s troll-under-the-bridge role: how levied allotment of visibility is their entire profit model.

If history is written by the victors, then stories are told by the winners. So behind every story, and thus behind every black box, there’s a winner. And the BIG winners — like Facebook, Google, and Amazon — not only tell stories, but they run the bidding wars for visibility itself. Space, whether on a shelf or a timeline, is fought for exclusively by those on the outside of the black box.

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But now, the black boxes that have cocooned us for so long are beginning to crack. The dangers, while invisible to many, were real all along — now bubbling up in the form of police brutality, cancel culture, worker strikes, wildfires, floods, refugees, and in case you forgot, the ongoing burning of the Amazon. With the world on fire, my mind drifts back to the candle…

Dedicating my lifetime would hardly put a dent in rainforest problem, but I can improve the smell of my living room — in about 15 seconds flat, with just a few clicks on Amazon. Meanwhile, the real Amazon keeps on burning. Who’s to blame? One side of me clings to the easy story:

It was Amazon, in the Amazon, with the candlestick!

And the other side of me just sits quietly, wafting pleasant fragrances and feeling guilty.

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