In 1870, Edwin Rogers designed a push-button fire-alarm repeater. While security professionals might be drawn to the alarm aspect of the device, it was the button that made it revolutionary.
Rogers is credited with inventing the electric push button, which “made it possible for an alarm triggered at the location of one box on the street to strike multiple bells and gongs throughout the system, sending an alert without the aid of a central operator,” writes Rachel Plotnick, assistant professor at Indiana University, in her new book Power Button: A History of Pleasure, Panic, and the Politics of Pushing. “This case of pushing buttons in emergency situations demonstrated the potential potency of exerting minimal effort to signal across distance, to command responders to action.”
The idea quickly took root and buttons were adopted in factories, hotels, and elevators. While safety and security were an early target of button power, it quickly became clear that humans are hardwired to enjoy pushing buttons in any circumstance.
In Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, Adam Alter, associate professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, writes that modern technology has perfected the button to keep our attention and manipulate us into taking action.
“The people who create and refine tech, games, and interactive experiences are very good at what they do. They run thousands of tests with millions of users to learn which tweaks work and which ones don’t—which background colors, fonts, and audio tones maximize engagement and minimize frustration,” Alter writes. “As an experience evolves, it becomes an irresistible, weaponized version of the experience it once was. In 2004, Facebook was fun; in 2016, it’s addictive.”
For example, Alter writes about an experiment launched by Facebook’s Web developers—the “like” button. “It’s hard to exaggerate how much the ‘like’ button changed the psychology of Facebook use. What had begun as a passive way to track your friends’ lives was now deeply interactive…. A post with zero likes wasn’t just privately painful, but also a kind of public condemnation: either you didn’t have enough online friends, or, worse still, your online friends weren’t impressed.” The button was so successful that almost all social media platforms and comment sites now have a way to approve or upvote a post.
The need to impress or be impressed can lead to addictive behavior on Facebook. However, the impulse can be dangerous in the darker corners of the Internet. In this month’s cover story, Steven Crimando, principal of Behavioral Science Applications, discusses Incels. This group of mostly men participate almost exclusively in online groups. Like the earliest buttons, upvotes on these sites illustrate the potency of exerting minimal effort to command action from afar. However, instead of protecting people and property, these buttons allow lonely people to air grievances and, in the case of several high-profile mass shootings, sometimes promote violence.