By Published Tuesday, October 9, 2018 A history of pleasure, panic, and the politics of pushing. Whether they need to be tapped, clicked or swiped, buttons are everywhere. Think how many times in your daily life you affirm your intention to do something by pressing one and it soon becomes evident how we’ve become so accustomed to the action that it’s something we do without even thinking. The idea of analysing our relationship with buttons may seem at first sight like an exercise in anthropological overanalysis. Yet Rachel Plotnick’s comprehensive review of their history in ‘Power Button: A History of Pleasure, Panic, and the Politics of Pushing’ (The MIT Press, £30, ISBN 9780262038232) is much more thought provoking, not least for engineers who employ them as the main point of relationship between the output of their work and the ultimate user. As Plotnick explains, there’s been little analysis of the complexities of hand-machine relationships, considering how prevalent they are. And even though ‘at the touch of a button’ has become shorthand for elegance and simplicity, buttons all too often fail to work as intended, or there are situations where they confuse and frustrate. Not to mention the situations where people are actively working to build safeguards that prevent buttons from being pushed unless absolutely necessary. It was only in January this year that President Donald Trump responded to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sabre-rattling statement that the “nuclear button is on his desk at all times” with a tweet affirming that the US President not only has his own button but that “ is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” ‘Power Button’ 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 consumer technologies of the time like typewriters and telegraphy were entering the mainstream, Plotnick describes how they heralded an era of almost magical ‘digital command’ that promised effortless, discreet, and foolproof control. Plotnick discusses the uses of early push buttons to call servants, and the growing tensions between those who work with their hands and those who command with their fingers; automation as ‘automagic’, enabling command at a distance; instant gratification, and the victory of light over darkness. Push buttons, she explains, have demonstrated remarkable staying power, despite efforts to cast button pushers as lazy, privileged, and even dangerous. Steve Jobs is one tech figure whose attitude to buttons was evident in Apple’s products. In one interview quoted in ‘Power Button’ he related this to his awareness of his own mortality. “Maybe it’s ‘cause I want to believe in an afterlife. That when you die, it doesn’t just all disappear. The wisdom you’ve accumulated. Somehow it lives on, but sometimes I think it’s just like an on-off switch. Click and you’re gone... And that’s why I don’t like putting on-off switches on Apple devices.” engineering and technology in society history of technology reviews books volume 13 issue 10 Related stories Book interview: Iain Dey, ‘The Cryotron Files’ Principal Engineer - Gas Turbine Filtration Division Alton, Hampshire Security Consultant Home Based 5G street fight Review Book review: ‘Seashaken Houses’ by Tom Nancollas Teardown: Samsung Note9 Comment Do you believe in ghosts? Let’s bust some supernatural myths ‘First Man’: 50 years after that first small step onto the surface of the Moon Banking on artificial intelligence Interview: Keir Boxshall, Smiths Group Tall storeys: building super-slender skyscraper homes Robots, harpoons and nets: how we’ll clear our orbital rubbish Recent articles Exclusive Cities block 5G kiosks after doing rival deals Saudi space tourism project suspended over alleged murder of journalist Amy Winehouse ‘hologram’ to go on tour in 2019 Comment View from Vitalia: Of gauge changes and border crossings Book interview: Iain Dey, ‘The Cryotron Files’ Comment View from India: Mobility, lifeline of the nation 5G street fight Nissan and EDF partner on energy storage and more Robots, AI and drones could soon join the battlefield, senior army officer says Review Book review: ‘Seashaken Houses’ by Tom Nancollas Teardown: Samsung Note9