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Who Gets to Push Buttons

Researcher Rachel Plotnick spent seven years studying why we push buttons.
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Researcher Rachel Plotnick spent seven years studying why we push buttons.

Buttons are everywhere in our lives. But why? We push buttons on dishwashers, car dashboards, doorbells, our phones, and, of course, those “like” buttons on social media.

Where did buttons come from, and what gives them an edge over, say, dials or switches? And why do they so often seem not to do what we think they should?

Rachel Plotnick spent seven years studying buttons and learned a few things about why people push them. She wrote about it for The Conversation and in her book, Power Button: A History of Pleasure, Panic and the Politics of Pushing.

It all started with television remote controls. Then Plotnick started noticing buttons everywhere.

“I got interested in the question of how we became a society that pushes buttons all day long, every day,” she told Living Lab Radio.

She discovered that buttons first showed up in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as the industrial revolution picked up speed and machines became electrified. 

“You see a lot of things happening socially around this question of who gets to push buttons,” Plotnick said. “This is where you begin to see kind of a stratification in the labor force of people who get to push buttons and people who are made to heed the call of the button,” she said.

Today we have a slightly murky relationship with buttons, especially when we wonder if we’re really in control.

“They often obscure the complexity that lies behind them,” Plotnick said. “That makes them attractive because you don't have to understand how that crosswalk button works, you don't have to understand how the elevator button works. But on the other hand, you're also not given a lot of information about what's happening behind the scenes.”

Plotnick says as a society, we continue to wrestle with a kind of “pleasure and panic” that is fundamentally embedded in how we think about technology and especially button pushing.

“I'm much more attuned to kind of the social issues that I see happening around buttons in daily life,” she said.

Web content produced by Elsa Partan.

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Elsa Partan is a producer and newscaster with CAI. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.