A CENTURY BEFORE Mark Zuckerberg introduced the “like” button, E. M. Forster envisioned the Facebook age in 1909 with a dystopian story called “The Machine Stops.” The story locates its protagonist in an empty room, its walls covered in electric buttons.

When pushed, the buttons produced instant food, music, clothing, literature. “[A]nd there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends,” writes Forster. “The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.”

Forster put his finger on it. Push buttons are everywhere, dotting our walls and phones and dashboards — even our metaphors. You can set someone off by pushing her buttons. You can raise a hot-button issue. You can get what you want if you know how to press all the right buttons. You can push the reset button or the panic button or the Easy Button™. Pentagon nuclear strategists have theorized for decades about a “push-button” war in which the ultimate symbol of apocalypse is the big red button on a leader’s desk.

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. [1]

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.

The low-effort, high-impact ethos of the button was consistent with a broader push by the scientific management movement to make human bodies more efficient. Single-touch tasks appealed to Taylorists “intent on eliminating bodily effort from technical experiences,” while advertisers encouraged users to install buttons on bedposts to maximize reachability and comfort.

Achieving outsized effects with a touch constituted a “reversal of forces,” an industrialist ideal whereby much could be done without much doing. The concentration of power in the fingertip not only induced existential worry among craftsmen and physical laborers, but also raised concerns among pushers about sedentarism and detachment. Couch potatoes and armchair generals emerged as bugbears of push-button culture long before the invention of the TV remote or the unmanned drone.

The ease with which button pushers could exert electrical force across massive distances also elicited fears of moral hazard. Americans were particularly unsettled by button-activated executions by electric chair, a practice begun in the United States in 1890. While some observers celebrated the method of “gentle pressure on the button” in contrast to more gruesome techniques, others were disturbed by the dissonance of soft touch and violent shock; one critic decried the electric death penalty as a “cold blooded proposition for the degradation of a noble science.” “By transforming violent physical actions into mere touch,” Plotnick writes, “push buttons stripped physical force from the death penalty act while leaving the forceful impact of death in its wake.”

For Plotnick, this push-button paradox — effortless force — made the button a “disciplinary device” that policed turn-of-the-century social hierarchies. In the industrial workplace, supervisors retreated to private offices away from the factory floor, necessitating buttons to direct their employees from a distance. Think of the factory boss who conveys orders via control panel in Chaplin’s Modern Times. Taking this dynamic to its absurd extreme is the supervillain — Stromberg in The Spy Who Loved Me, Mr. Burns in The Simpsons — who sends minions to their deaths through a button-triggered trapdoor. The button renders old, frail Mr. Burns disproportionately powerful, and therefore cruel.

Likewise, as buttons replaced call bells in wealthy households, push-button service contributed to an idealized understanding of domestic workers as parts in a machine, as invisible and instantaneously responsive as electricity. The “essential dynamic between the person pushing and the person or mechanism ‘pushed’ into motion,” Plotnick observes, “reflects the forceful and commanding nature of the act.”

Even as metaphor, the push button conferred strength on some and subordinated others. In the 1890s, prominent physicians described the clitoris as “a little electric button” that, when pressed, “rings up the whole nervous system.” The association of female arousal with the button, Plotnick argues, “suggests specifically how physicians imagined women’s bodies as controllable and buttons as dangerous sources of activation.”

Power Button offers a rich analysis, touching on everything from buttons as tools of self-service consumption to the aesthetic considerations that governed button design. Yet for all its detailed evidence, the book misses some the major political and economic events of the period. Plotnick makes no mention of Henry Ford’s moving assembly line, for example, debuted in 1913. “Let me remind you that I have a row of electric buttons in my office,” Ford told critics who derided him for lacking a secondary education. “All I have to do is press one of them to call the person who can answer any question on any subject I wish to know relative to the business at hand.” Nor does Plotnick discuss World War I, despite the critical role that wireless communication played in its conduct. [2]

Still, Power Button is loaded with sharp observations and prescient pronouncements about how pushing (and clicking, tapping, and swiping) became our way of life. “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,” proclaimed a critic in the Detroit Free Press in 1903. Push-button communication enabled users to “keep in touch” even as it eroded physical proximity as a condition of human relationships. “Our fingers have grown immensely longer,” observed an author in 1899. And now they are long enough now to “poke” our Facebook friends across cyberspace.

Much of our experience in the internet age seems a natural progression from the early years of American button-pushing society. Evoking the dual meaning of the “digital” — relating to the finger or to the representation of data using 0s and 1s — Plotnick suggests that buttons contributed to the conditions of mind that made possible the computer and internet. “The ethos of the internet as a whole,” Plotnick argues, is “tied to expectations of consumption, gratification, and access to information at a touch.” Buttons not only structure the digital interface (mouse clicks, screen taps); they accustom us to self-service models of work and play. Siri and Alexa enact the fantasy of effortless, instantaneous command over unseen servants who never take vacation. Amazon’s Dash Button, which allows one to order toilet paper without the hassle of walking over to the computer, posits a seamless cascade between desire and consumption: want, push, purchase.

Even as analog buttons have given way to digital icons, pushing still connotes authority and domination (“pushy” people, Plotnick notes, are those who appear “forceful despite a lack of force”). We continue to fear “men in positions of power, sitting behind their desks, carrying out dangerous and irreparable actions with a simple push.” She cites two examples: Matt Lauer, who reportedly installed a button under his desk to lock his office door when meeting with female co-workers; and Donald Trump, who threatened to show Kim Jong Un whose nuclear button was biggest.

“Simply put, pushing never occurs without politics,” writes Plotnick. Last month, an organization called Best for Britain ran an ad campaign that features a massive red button labeled “STOP” settled atop the white cliffs of Dover. “Imagine a button that could fix Brexit,” the ad implores. Such a button would be, indeed, the perfect political weapon: it threatens to reset reality, to wipe away the histories forged by political foes.

But if pushing is political, it is also personal. We buttonize our likes and dislikes — “one can express a feeling much as they might choose a snack from a vending machine,” Plotnick observes — and sign over our privacy rights with a click of the “Accept Terms and Conditions” button. Buttons have invaded the most intimate spaces of daily life, such that much of what we care for in the world, as Forster predicted in 1909, is merely a push away.

¤

Anna Feuer is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Yale University studying political violence, counterinsurgency, and environmental history.

¤

[1] According to a 2016 study by the research firm Dscout. Julia Naftulin, “Here’s how many times we touch our phones every day,” Business Insider, 13 July 2016, https://www.businessinsider.com/dscout-research-people-touch-cell-phones-2617-times-a-day-2016-7.  

[2] Stephen Kern advances this thesis in The Culture of Time and Space: 1880-1918 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).