• Paul W. Smith

A Black Box for Everything


In the aftermath of a plane crash, one of the first things the accident investigators look for is the flight recorder. Inaptly named the “black box”, it is neither a box, nor is it black – a very bright shade of red is much easier to locate. Recording on a virtual continuous loop, it presumably will have a record of events for the last critical moments of the flight.


Beginning in the 1990’s, the magnetic tape units originally used in flight recorders were replaced by solid state memory boards. Today, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner can log 146,000 separate flight parameters, resulting in several terabytes of data per flight. There is a separate recorder which preserves the last two hours of cockpit audio (crew member expletives included). All this data requires sophisticated analysis software.


Automobile dash cameras, building surveillance cameras and law enforcement body-cams are further examples of how pre-event data logging has infiltrated our lives. Thieves have been apprehended, legal issues have been resolved, and car vandals have been brought to justice using this recorded information. Imagine what a future civilization might think of us if they unearthed all this data.


While it might be satisfying to show the police a video of the person who keyed your expensive car, there are folks who are taking a more expansive view of so-called “Black Box” recording. Climate change is yet another of those divisive issues of our times, and there are those on one side who want to preserve a clear picture of what we humans were doing leading up to what they believe is the inevitable crash of the earth as we know it.


A consortium of like-minded data researchers, architects and artists are putting together a repository that will sit in environmentally and geopolitically safe Tasmania beginning later this year. The original design is intended to last for 50 years, which is longer than the climate clock implies we have left. Work is already underway to extend that life just in case earth outlasts the clock. Three-inch-thick steel walls are meant to protect the archives from whatever might destroy earth, although allowing for visitors to access the information stored in the box remains unsolved.


John Wooden once wrote “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” Earth’s flight recorder will hold humans accountable for climate change by documenting news articles, scientific journals, tweets, and other assorted records. Land and ocean temperatures will be charted, along with atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations and biodiversity losses. As a measure of our changing priorities, military spending will be included. It is hoped that an archive of leaders’ climate-conserving efforts will inspire more. Expletives will likely be omitted to conserve storage space.


Some scientists see very little evidence that global warming will result in human extinction, but others remain concerned. How this story ends is anyone’s guess, but all of the events, actions and in-actions will be faithfully recorded in Tasmania.


As pilots say, brace for impact.



Author Profile - Paul W. Smith - leader, educator, technologist, writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life. In addition to being a regular contributor to NetworkDataPedia, he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and occasionally writes for Blogcritics. Paul has over 40 years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders. His other passion is teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.




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