Power Button: A History of Pleasure, Panic, and the Politics of Pushing

By Rachel Plotnick, MIT Press, 2018, 424 pp. Hardcover, $35.00 (ISBN: 9780262038232)

The title of Rachel Plotnick’s book itself manages to push several buttons at once. Besides the felicitous main title, the subtitle in particular flicks on one line of associations after the other, like a series of street lights, if you will. Converging at the fuse box that is Plotnick’s book, they not only make for an evocative book title, but for an epistemological thesis: much can be learned and understood about modern culture and society by studying the functionality of its buttons.

Of course, there is much intuitive evidence to support such a thesis—above all, as Plotnick effortlessly shows, the ubiquity of buttons in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Buttons are “everywhere,” they follow our command, they have all kinds of effects, and when they malfunction, they disrupt our most ingrained routines, expectations, and interactions. In the history of the advertising of consumer technology, the phrase “at the push of a button” may well be the most pervasive one. And even where mechanical buttons are becoming increasingly obsolete, as in the case of the latest few generations of smartphones, engineers go to great lengths to replace them with sophisticated simulations of buttons, as in Apple’s “Taptic Engine” technology, for example.

On the other hand, the promising topic comes with a considerable risk, as well: What if buttons turn out to be just buttons, after all? Superficial, predictable, ordinary; not only ubiquitous, but commonplace; a mere component, rather than a pars pro toto. This skepticism raises the question: How meaningful, how readable are buttons really? And methodologically phrased: How does one read them?

Focusing on the period between 1880 and 1925, when mechanical and electrical buttons first proliferated into everyday life, Plotnick provides many interesting insights, details, and anecdotes on the phenomena of buttons and button pushing. Throughout the book, she makes the compelling case that no matter how sleek, flush, or seemingly straightforward a button, there is always more to, behind, and surrounding it: “Although the act of pushing may require less and less physical force over time, it will continue to imply forcefulness without further consideration of the ways that various kinds of hands and machines interact. We must acknowledge that when people push, someone or something must always do the finger’s bidding to make the magic of buttons possible.” (p. 257)

It is at this structural site, investigating the arguably first and simplest of user interfaces, that Plotnick derives valuable and (for the most part) still applicable insights into political power relations, constructions of gender, pedagogical challenges, sedentarism, and historical cultural imaginaries. Although not explicitly, she suggests that affordances not only “further” things (as the term’s etymology has it), but that they are also something one must be able to afford – financially, as well as politically and socially, that is.

Plotnick’s argumentation, while plausible throughout, is most compelling in the second and third parts of the book (on the automaticity and the contested uses of buttons, respectively), in which archival materials and anecdotes from advertising, literature, and world fairs provide additional historical evidence. The first part (focusing on early electric bells), on the other hand, occasionally struggles to fend off the risk mentioned above – less so because of an uninterestingness of the subject, but rather, it seems, due to a lack of more “talkative” historical material. Perhaps a consideration of early cinema could have provided some additional evidences here, due to its unique ability to represent and dramatize kinetic effects. (One immediately thinks of Lang’s Metropolis and Chaplin’s Modern Times as potential sources of material, both of which date from slightly after Plotnick’s period of investigation, though: from 1927 and 1936, respectively.)

The book’s conclusion, which brings the cultural history of button technology to the present, arouses curiosity for (even) more, as it cursorily addresses Amazon’s somewhat absurd seeming “Dash Buttons,” Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un’s Twitter feud on the size of their respective nuclear buttons, as well as the question of the future of buttons under the ascending reign of voice user interfaces, such as Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa. A more extensive, possibly parallel consideration of this current moment in the cultural history of buttons would hardly have yielded a full-fledged theory of buttons, but might have allowed for a somewhat more explicit formulation of somewhat more theoretical insights on the subject.[1] Nevertheless, Plotnick’s book makes for an interesting read that no doubt sheds an illuminating light on the curious case of buttons.

Hannes Mandel, Department of Germanic Studies, University of Texas at Austin


[1] Somewhere along the lines, perhaps, of Markus Krajewski’s recently translated congenial monograph The Server: A Media History from the Present to the Baroque. Translated by Ilinca Iurascu. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018.