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book review / culture

Cute as a Button? Think Twice

A new book examines the first generation of button-pushing Americans at the turn of the 20th century.
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How should we account for the push button’s pull on our imagination? In Power Button: A History of Pleasure, Panic, and the Politics of Pushing, media studies professor Rachel Plotnick examines the first generation of button-pushing Americans who were introduced to doorbells, electric lights, and other early finger-triggered technologies at the turn of the 20th century. Her insightful and meticulous history depicts an industrializing America “enamored with the ‘digital’ — the finger — as a source of tactile input for machines.” For Plotnick’s readers, who on average touch and tap their cell phones 2,617 times each day, her take on the compulsion to push should be of keen interest.

Push buttons, Plotnick explains, were introduced to American households to solve a problem. Electrification presented something of a metaphysical challenge to its users: its intangibility and immateriality conflicted with the notion of touch as our primary means of encountering the world (consider our haptic metaphors: one is “in touch” or “out of touch” with reality). Nineteenth-century electricians experimented with buttons as a strategy to make electricity “simultaneously real and yet magically and safely concealed.” The button emerged as “a coping mechanism to make the untouchable touchable”; it served as the clean and simple “face” of electricity behind which hid a messy, confusing, and possibly dangerous technical apparatus.

To control electricity with the touch of a finger was to keep electrical technologies at arm’s length. By concealing the causal processes underlying electrical devices, the button at once granted the pusher miraculous power and estranged her from the mechanism itself. Popular depictions of the push button captured this contradiction. On the one hand, button pushers frequently evoked the finger of God: the poet George Woodward Warder wrote in 1901 that “[God] touched the electric button that gave impulse to all atoms, created all suns, evolved all worlds.” On the other, companies often portrayed electricity in advertisements as a genie conjured by the button, ready to grant the user’s every wish by some unknown magic.
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