Pleasure, Panic, and the Politics of Pushing

How did buttons become so ubiquitous? Why do we love them, loathe them, and fear them? In Power Button, Rachel Plotnick traces the origins of today’s push-button society by examining how buttons have been made, distributed, used, rejected, and refashioned throughout history. Focusing on the period between 1880 and 1925, when “technologies of the hand” proliferated (including typewriters, telegraphs, and fingerprinting), Plotnick describes the ways that button pushing became a means for digital command, which promised effortless, discreet, and fool-proof control.

Below read an excerpt from chapter 9 of Rachel Plotnick’s Power Button:

Push for Your Pleasure

In 1905, Professor Charles Henry Rieber of the University of California hoped to develop a machine […] that could provide its user with anything she desired, including answers to her every question. Author W. B. Nesbit — inspired by Rieber’s efforts — pondered the possibilities of this push-button logic in an intriguing and prescient poem titled “Push the Button”:

If you have a lot of questions and are
worrying for answers,
Push the button.
If you want to know the ages of the youthful ballet dancers, Push the button.
If you want to know the reason for a vexing lot of things,
The worries of the commoners and discontent of kings,
And why you have to coax the youthful
wonder ere she sings,
Push the button.
Would you get some information as to
stocks or bonds or grain?
Push the button.
Do you want to make a million? Do you
want to catch a train?
Push the button.
Is it something as to fashion — as to bonnet, gloves or dress?
Does the Christmas problem worry you
and fill you with distress?
Do you wonder if the damsel will reject
you or say “Yes?”
Push the button.
For the price of lamb or lobster, beef or
veal or pork or mutton,
Push the button.
For the work of all the authors, from old
Chaucer down to Hutton,
Push the button.
Now the information bureau is a thing of
cogs and wheels.
At the shifting of a lever all its knowledge
it reveals.
If you’d like to know the outcome of your
doings and your deals,
Push the button.
There’s a button for your likings, for your
longings and your joys — 
Push the button.
And you needn’t go to school so long as
you’ve got the strength to shove — 
Push the button.
If you want to ask a question, and the
dial don’t reply.
If the thing is out of gearing and its
works have gone awry.
Do not go to the inventor and in anger
ask him why — 
Push the button.[24]

In a striking piece of writing long before computers, smart-phones, or “apps,” Nesbit described a machine that could satisfy any want — one’s “likings,” “longings,” and “joys,” the status of one’s relationship, as well as information on any topic — with the only requirement being that “you’ve got the strength to shove.”[25] The scenario captured an already pervasive fixation with buttons, which glamorized a world where fingers operated effortlessly. In Nesbit’s example, the push-button experience was totalizing and all encompassing, with one hand practice made to accommodate every need and whim.

This vision of a complete push-button existence wasn’t always viewed positively, as in the case of E. M. Forster’s dystopian short story, “The Machine Stops” (1909), where buttons could procure anything the protagonist desired, but the act of pushing would ultimately lead to the button pusher’s severe and profound isolation:

There were buttons and switches everywhere — buttons to call for food for music, for clothing. There was the hot-bath button, by pressure of which a basin of (imitation) marble rose out of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid. There was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced literature. And there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.[26]

Rather than depicting an empowered consumer gratified by her consumption, Forster feared that this automatic living — push-button living — would alienate and disconnect a button pusher whose only ties to the rest of the world were buttons. Such a critique viewed long-distance, technologically enabled communication as a barrier to self-fulfillment rather than the hallmark of modern and efficient existence. Here, as with other concerns about distance and alienation, Forster proposed that being “in touch” via a push-button universe was not the same as the closeness of “human touch.”

Yet another critic focused on the mindless pleasure and “mania for simplification” brought about by pushing buttons, where buttons would produce a dangerously “effortless state”:

It is no longer necessary to speak to be served. You step into a hotel, press the button, and a succulent luncheon appears suddenly before your delighted vision. Ten seconds later you feel chilly; you press another button, and presto! Your fireplace is lighted up as if by magic. Electric buttons have become the masters of the world, overcoming distance, doing away with the necessity for forethought, and, for that matter, for thought at all. Everything is changed.[27]

As with Forster’s example, once again the role of distance featured in this account; proximity and distance could take on different perceptions and meaning. Sometimes closeness felt too close, and in other cases distance felt too great. In this instance, the author romanticized effort as a form of more authentic engagement with the world than the effortlessness that made overcoming distance possible.

These utopian and dystopian renderings of push-button life began to take shape for electricians, manufacturers of electrical goods, and advertisers, who often brainstormed ways to most effectively stimulate desire in consumers and create a need for their products. Joseph French Johnson, dean of the NYU School of Commerce and president of the Alexander Hamilton Institute, argued to advertisers (1920), “So if we want to make men more civilized we must make them want more things.”[28] Describing how advertising could serve as an “economic force” to encourage these wants, he illustrated a fictional scenario where one could link buttons to desire and gratification:

Suppose an architect could put into a man’s house a room on the walls of which were a myriad of electric buttons, the pushing of which would bring the gratification of any conceivable desire — here a button that brought out a beefsteak dinner, there a button that gives him a bottle of red wine, over there a button that responded with cigars, and here buttons that responded with music of any kind desired, or with beautiful pictures, or with books and magazines that exactly suited his fancy. In that magic chamber there would be, of course, some buttons, perhaps many, which good people would call wicked buttons; for example, in the opinion of some people, the wine button or the whisky button. Now if any architect could construct that kind of a room you know perfectly well that his services would be in constant demand even though he lived forever.[29]

Johnson’s imaginative rendering of a world ruled by buttons demonstrated how advertisers thought about pleasure as a manifestation of goods available on demand. In this universe, a push button existed for every want, whether good or “wicked,” ready for the button pusher and always at hand. Rather than summoning one servant to bring each of these items, every item would have its own button ready for dispensing.