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Buttons That Don't Work (by Paul W. Smith)

It’s been over 50 years now since George Jetson and his Orbit City lifestyle debuted as the first program broadcast in color on ABC-TV. George lived in the Skypad Apartments with his wife Jane and their two children, Judy and Elroy. His work week consisted of an hour a day, two days a week, where he turned the Referential Universal Digital Indexer on and off for the Spacely Sprocket Company. The Jetson’s cushy lifestyle was enabled by numerous labor-saving devices which sometimes broke down, cueing the laugh track. Much of the show’s humor was derived from the family’s complaints about the inconveniences of those tasks that weren’t yet automated.

In retrospect, The Jetsons is notable not for the technological advances that it foresaw, but for the ideal it created of the perfect future where we wouldn’t have to do much of anything except push buttons. These days, buttons are a big part of our lives, and a great many entrepreneurial calories are burned in seeking the next breakthrough labor-saving gizmo. Unlike the Jetsons audiences, today’s households rarely find things that don’t work to be a source of merriment.

There is a busy intersection about a half mile from our house that my wife and I frequently cross when out for a walk. Each of the four corners has two of those crosswalk buttons, eight in total, and seven of them let out an audible chirp when touched (they are electronic only, with no mechanical action). The one exception produces no sound. Because the intersection is a complex one, with multiple left arrows and variable timing to accommodate changes in traffic, there is really no way to know if that one button really does anything. This hasn’t stopped us from pushing it for the past 8 years.

If you think about it, this sort of thing happens a lot. Pushing the “door open” button on an elevator often leaves me wondering if I was too late, or if it even works at all. I have pushed up and down buttons on hotel room thermostats which may change the temperature display, but often leave me wondering if they affect the room. Many a doorbell produces no discernible sound, leaving me to guess if anyone on the other side was alerted.

Harvard psychologist Dr. Ellen Langer gave this whole button thing some serious thought, and came up with the concept of “illusion of control.” Ellen’s research revealed that the world is in fact full of buttons that don’t work. She says that might not be a bad thing.

Medical researchers have wondered for some time now why giving patients a placebo (even when they know that’s what they’re getting) may have a desirable effect. Placebo buttons, mechanically sound and pushable but otherwise connected to nothing, can give us a sense of control over a situation that ultimately feels good. This presumably precedes the frustration that eventually comes as we repeatedly mash a button with no result. Pushing a useless button at a crosswalk is more empowering than waiting for the light to change on its own with no button to push, or so say the experts.

The New York City Department of Transportation has confirmed that only about 1 of 10 crosswalk buttons work, but people go on pushing them anyway. In many cases, the buttons were installed prior to the implementation of complex, automated traffic management systems that adjust timing to maintain flow. Rather than incur the expense of removing all the buttons, they were often simply left in place and their signals ignored.

The situation is similar in other cities like Boston, Dallas and Seattle. In some cases, traffic AI will simply ignore the pedestrian buttons, while in other circumstances it gives priority to certain vehicles (buses that are running late, police cars, etc.) Other systems work, but only at select times of the day. None of these little details are disclosed to the hapless button pusher.

Elevator door buttons are a bit more complicated for a very good reason - the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The law requires that the doors remain open long enough for a person with mobility issues to get in safely. The thought that someone in a hurry would try to close the doors on another person on crutches or in a wheelchair is more of a statement on our society than our technology.

According to American Society of Heating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, there is some science behind those hotel room thermostats as well. Research has shown that air temperature alone is not a very good indicator for comfort. Psychologists have also found that believing you have some degree of control over temperature will expand your comfort zone considerably. Combine that with the energy savings hotels can get from limiting a guest’s temperature control and it is easy to see why those hotel room buttons might not work.

There is a hidden battle going on, a fight between the entrepreneurs trying to sell us more powerful buttons, and the engineers looking to optimize traffic flow, increase hotel profits, or keep us from hurting each other. If you’ve been worrying whether modern technology is slowly seizing control of our lives, leaving us with nothing but a calming illusion, look no further than the nearest intersection.

Author Profile - Paul W. Smith - leader, educator, technologist, writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life. In addition to being a regular contributor to NetworkDataPedia, he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and occasionally writes for Blogcritics. Paul has over 40

years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders. His other passion is teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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