The Science Behind Buttons


People push buttons every single day. They press them to turn on their TVs, their PCs, and to make their coffee. They even press them when they want to cross the road. But not everyone is enamored with them. Humanity has become a push-button society, but there are over-arching themes which might tell us why exactly that is.

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A little walk down memory lane reveals that during the late 19th century, Kodak began marketing button pushing as the next great thing that is going to make your life easier. Kodak even had a slogan: “You press the button, we do the rest.” Even this slogan suggests how easy buttons are to use. This campaign basically kickstarted amateur photography. It also gave us some subcultures of questionable value – like the one related to selfies.

But in reality, there is nothing easy about buttons. There are examples of this in everyday life. There is always that one close-door button in an elevator that never seems to work. Or that crosswalk button that never forces the light to turn green. Programming these functions seems easy, but in reality, it is the stuff of nightmares. Dashboards used by pilots or even DJs are many times more difficult and have a ton more buttons. Like anything else in technology, even pushing a button requires people to undergo basic training at least.

Buttons also often encourage consumerism. The first buttons were found on vending machines. At the start of the 20th century, companies assigned buttons to almost everything. This trend was supposed to convince customers that everything can be completed at the push of a button. Even today buttons dominate our lives. We push physical buttons to get candy bars from vending machines, but we also push virtual ones to stream movies and music or to order food and Uber rides.

Amazon even implemented the “dash” button. And in theory, this seems like a great idea. A programmable single-purpose button which can simplify many of our daily activities? Where can I sign up? Need toilet paper, push a button. Out of detergent, again, push a button. From there the system does everything for you. There are issues though. Germany has already outlawed Dash buttons because they have no way of letting the customer know how much money they are spending.

Buttons can also bring out the worst in people. Every child in the world likes to push buttons of every kind. If it is in their reach, the button is going to be pressed. People often complained about children honking vehicle horns or ringing doorbells in the past. With the advancement in technology, there are now more buttons to push than ever.

Even adults tend to abuse buttons, like when a boss uses a button to call their employees like some kind of modern servant.

In the past, people had a fear of buttons due to their suggested involvement in warfare. The ability to push a button and launch a devastating attack was on people’s minds constantly. This was especially true during the time of the Cold War. We even have a recent example for this when US president Donald Trump bragged to Kim Jong Un how he too has a nuclear button. Childish as it might have been, it perfectly displays the power of the button.

It is interesting to see how people still have concerns about buttons, but their usage is not declining. They are present more than ever on our smartphones and other electrical devices like computers or gaming consoles. One way to remedy this is to take a closer look at who is allowed to push a particular button, who is not, what that button does and under which conditions, and when people start doing that, we might finally figure out the importance of the button as well as its complexity.

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