A Button For Your Thoughts?

I’ve never trusted buttons –the kind you press, I mean. I’ve long suspected they do not deliver a round unvarnished tale, but I could never be sure. At the very least, they offer me an illusion of control. Maybe that extra hard pressing of the elevator button does not go unheard by its hidden parts; maybe it makes an extra effort to hurry to my floor, even though it seems reluctant to acquiesce in my subsequent attempts to close its door before it is uncomfortably full. Sometimes I think it is just a societally accepted pacifier, a technological illusionist.

And they’re everywhere, the promise-ridden magi. Even the crosswalk buttons with their filial connections to those little ungendered orange hands that warn you not to walk into the traffic unchaperoned. Yes, they do deliver the redemptive white walking-figure –eventually- but in the greater scheme of things, does it guarantee anything other than a guilt-free stroll across the intersection? You still have to have your wits about you; you still have to stop, look and listen.

I recognize that there seems to be a tinge of Ludditism in my brief jeremiad, but only superficially so. I don’t want to destroy technology, nor even subvert it; I merely wish to understand its evolutionary pathways. I wish to understand the theory of buttons… Okay, push-buttons, lest there be any confusion.

I mean, let’s face it, that kind of button usually stands out from whatever background surrounds it. After all, it supposedly comes from the old French boter –to push or shove –so you have to see it first, eh? And by pushing it, there is an expectation that something will happen –or stop happening. It implies some sort of mechanical or electrical mechanism that it is affecting. There are no push-buttons on trees, for example. It can be confusing.

Anyway, we’re so accustomed to buttons nowadays that we automatically assume they all have functions –it’s why they were put there after all. And anyway, why would anybody lie about it? Politics, maybe; buttons, no. So we have come to trust buttons. They are the sure and certain intermediaries between us and that other world of which none but its pundit acolytes have any inkling. They are the priests we supplicate for acknowledgment. For miracles.

But when things –even priests- become too commonplace, our acceptance turns automatic. Unexamined. Unguarded. And things can degenerate. Even buttons can wear sheep’s clothing. The falcon cannot hear the falconer; things fall apart; the center cannot hold, in the frightening words of Yeats. Sometimes, maybe, the button cannot feel the push –or, feeling, pretends to be that which it is not. And mere anarchy is loosed upon the worldAnd everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned. A wonderful metaphor for a button turned bad.

My point, in case you’ve lost track, is that the unexamined finger is not worth using. In fact, it’s come to the point where I feel the need to subject buttons to a more critical lens than I have heretofore being using. A lens that asks why it might be necessary to push a particular button, and forces me to examine the consequences of not so doing. To subject each button to the scientific method of asking, observing, and analysing. Or, better still, watching others –the pushers- and benefitting from their results.

Perhaps the most rewarding is the elevator. It brings together a melange of genders, a bolus of disparate personalities and a soupçon of differing time constraints -a crowd of inwardly distracted strangers, all impatient to leave. There is a Bell curve of manners, of course, but inevitably someone will press the button again. And again… their eyes painting a Michelangelo’d Creation of Adam on the non-Sistine ceiling.

People will pretend not to notice the outlier at first, pretend not to share the same lack of impulse control. Inevitably, if the elevator’s progress is not displayed above the still-shut doors, someone else will break rank and, with an embarrassed glance at the rest, ready their finger for a lunge –as if they might be the one for whom the button was waiting all along. Someone else to cast the winning dice.

The crowd, now acknowledging their commonality of purpose, and their unity of frustration, will smile and eye-contact each other, sending little glances to rest on their neighbours cheeks as if by accident. Soon, no one who behaves at all civilly is a stranger. Each has become an us. Each, a buttonista. And when the elevator finally arrives, each who re-dared the button, self-congratulates for their knowing contribution to the common wellbeing. There are smiles on the elevator –proof that, unless and until we think about it, we’re not so different after all.

Deception is like that, I suppose. If you think you placed a lucky number on the lottery, you’re happy -until it doesn’t work. If the button to close the door doesn’t function right away, you likely remain convinced that had it not been re-pushed, the door might still be open. Or the traffic light still red.

The unknocked door never opens. We need that illusion of control in a world we simply cannot hope to understand. We need to do something, hear something, see something rather than hoping it will happen on its own. So, are the artificial shutter clicking sounds that seem to accompany digital cameras, or the whooshing sounds meant to suggest the departure of an Email simply benevolent deceptions, or, like buttons, ways of lulling us into an Orwellian dystopia? Where real, mixes seamlessly with fantasy? Where expectations are driven by… well, by expectations? And is the button just an early step to introduce the subject? Function gauged by what may be programmed to happen anyway –but cleverly disguised by the commonality of arbitrary delay? A presumption of the necessity of other, more abstruse and hidden processes at work, but far beneath?

Simple deceptions, to be sure, and ones that we are already being programmed to accept. Benevolent? In a world of unintended consequences and confirmation biases, perhaps we will never know. But as Oscar Wilde observed, ‘Experience is the hardest kind of teacher. It gives you the test first, and the lesson afterward.’

Let’s hope he’s wrong.










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