Making doorbells ring

David Trotter

  • Power Button: A History of Pleasure, Panic and the Politics of Pushing by Rachel Plotnick
    MIT, 424 pp, £30.00, October 2018, ISBN 978 0 262 03823 2

Towards the end of his time at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios, Charlie Chaplin began to direct as well as star in the short slapstick films that were the company’s staple product. The crucial event in one of these films, The New Janitor, which was released in September 1914, is the pressing of an electric button. It’s Charlie’s first day at work, and his enthusiastic abuse of soap and water soon earns him the sack. Fortunately, however, the manager of the firm has chosen this moment to burgle the safe in the president’s office, and is caught redhanded by a secretary. As they struggle, she presses the button used to summon the janitor from his basement hutch. Gloomy already, Charlie doesn’t exactly jump to it. What follows is a brilliant pastiche of the race-to-the-rescue sequences D.W. Griffith pioneered in the state-of-the-art one and two-reelers he made for the Biograph Company between 1908 and 1913. Chaplin cuts back and forth between the struggle in the top-floor office and Charlie’s reluctant progress up several flights of stairs (he’s not allowed to use the executive elevator). He just about makes it in time. The New Janitor’s combination of gymnastic stunts with depth of feeling was to become Chaplin’s signature as a director. Crucial to that depth of feeling was the sympathy its audience could be guaranteed to feel for a fellow worker at the beck and call of desk-bound button-pushers. It’s not hard to imagine them urging Charlie on up the stairs, while understanding only too well why he might want to dawdle.

Chaplin doesn’t feature in Rachel Plotnick’s engrossing cultural history of the advent of the electric button, but the wealth of evidence she has amassed goes a long way towards explaining why he was interested in staunchly resisted subservience to remote control. By the 1870s, electricity had been tamed sufficiently to substitute for ponderous human or mechanical contrivance in a whole range of systems involving the transmission of signals at a distance. Fire alarms exemplified the new capacity. A button pushed closes a circuit, the electrical charge thus released becomes a message by ringing a bell in the fire station, and an engine clamours down the street in rapid response. The device soon caught on, in factories, banks and hotels, many of which saw the installation of an ‘annunciator’, a push-button system that rang a bell in the main office and at the same time triggered a ‘drop’, a pointer or flag indicating where the call came from. By the turn of the century, Plotnick notes, ‘fingers fixed upon push-buttons to make doorbells ring, call servants and elevators, turn lights on and off, explode dynamite at a safe distance, and alert police to domestic burglaries.’ Drawing on a substantial corpus of electro-mechanical commentary (newspaper reports, manuals, brochures, illustrations, satirical squibs, letters of complaint), she is able to contextualise these and many other significant innovations, from the battleship fire-control system to the museum display case. Her focus is on America in the period from 1880 to 1925, a ‘first-generation push-button society’.

The push-button appears to separate information from energy. The smallest touch can send a message powerful enough to launch a janitor from his basement hutch, or a nuclear missile from its silo. The concealment of the complicated human and mechanical apparatus linking cause to effect further reinforces the impression of remoteness. According to Plotnick, innovations in push-button technology brought about a fundamental, and enduring, change of attitude. The separation of information from energy has taught us to believe that when we push a button, ‘something magical begins’. The magic, needless to say, belongs mostly to power. Inoculation by push-button has consistently reinforced the class distinction between those who own or manipulate information and those who have little to dispose of other than their energy. Plotnick’s instructive term for the capacity created in this way is ‘digital command’. Pressure applied by a finger, or digit, activates a binary logic of which the digital computer is the ultimate expression. That’s the theory, at any rate. Plotnick has plenty to say about the practice as well, much of which has been haphazard. Many among her first generation of digital commanders had to be coaxed into the habit. Others, including schoolchildren and a legion of practical jokers, egregiously overexploited its far-reaching capacities. In 1901, one commentator lamented the emergence of the ‘press-the-button-fiend’. It was all a bit unseemly. ‘With the brusqueness characteristic of the times, we are instructed to push this modern startler.’ By the century’s second decade, however, the ‘modern startler’ was in widespread use as the instrument and emblem of privilege, as Chaplin understood.

Presidents were among the first to benefit. Plotnick provides an entertaining account of the determination shown by Grover Cleveland and his immediate successors to inaugurate as many expositions and world’s fairs remotely from Washington as they possibly could. The push of a button setting a ‘vast machinery’ in operation from a distance served as a measure of ‘efficacy in office’. More recent presidents have had yet more vast machineries at their disposal. It’s no surprise, as Plotnick points out, that Donald Trump should so obviously relish the role of digital commander. In January this year, playing dicks on the table with Kim Jong-un, Trump at one point tweeted that he, too, had a nuclear button, ‘but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!’ News outlets were quick to report that the only big button on Trump’s desk is the one that can summon a White House steward with a Coca-Cola.

Still, the story Plotnick has to tell isn’t just about the concentration of power. From the outset, capitalism sought to develop digital command as a ‘broader practice’: to sell it as a commodity. In 1900, an editorial in the Chicago Daily Tribune thought fit to describe the Kodak slogan, ‘You press the button, we do the rest,’ as the ‘prophetic cry of the age’ because it promised to put the consumer in immediate, effortless control of an intricate piece of machinery. Plotnick regards this hard sell as the ‘necessary precursor’ to the way we now think about – and seek to exploit – web-enabled services. The Kodak camera wasn’t all that far in spirit from recent initiatives such as Amazon Dash, wireless branded buttons you can stick on the washing machine or in the bathroom cabinet (‘Just press the button to get your essentials’), or Uber (‘Tap a button. Get a ride’). The main difference, perhaps, is that the lifestyles promoted by the prophetic cry of the age now involve the achievement of intimacy through remote control. Social media sites ‘buttonise’ emotion, dividing responses into ‘like’ or ‘dislike’.

Plotnick’s achievement is to have shown in convincing detail that the habit of digital command long preceded the advent of the computer. Her digital commanders already had some of the same reasons to push a button as we have to tap a screen. The book’s only significant shortcoming is its exclusive reliance on a certain kind of historical testimony (newspaper reports, manuals, brochures and so on). Such testimony is indispensable. But there’s not much by way of nuance in commentaries intent for the most part on characterising the push-button either as a miracle solution or as the cause of endless misery. A technology’s meaning depends on the circumstances of its use (including those circumstances it has itself created). In The New Janitor, the push of a button is at one and the same time a solution for the victim of a violent assault, and a misery for the inadvertent rescuer, who has nothing to gain by answering it. Chaplin would not have been out of place in a ‘history of pleasure, panic and the politics of pushing’. Nor would the literary fiction of the period, which is notable for its lavish attention to the social and cultural life of objects. In novels by William Dean Howells, Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, Kathleen Thompson, Henry James, Edith Wharton and others, the encounter with technology is a small step taken, often regardless, on a journey defined by an ever-shifting horizon of expectations and disappointments. Only in retrospect do we understand that it has unobtrusively shaped a destiny. The technology lives more fully in that understanding than in a brochure.

Literature does pleasure and panic, of course, as well as the one arising out of or overcoming the other. Some reference to it might have further enhanced Plotnick’s informative account of the gendering of fantasies of remote control. In an 1892 article on female circumcision, Dr Robert Morris declared that ‘the clitoris is a little electric button which, pressed by adhesions, rings up the whole nervous system.’ Dr Morris’s intervention provoked some panicky speculation as to the way that amount of pleasure might be brought speedily back under control, and a temporary spike in gynaecological locker-room banter. ‘That’s right!’ the Western Medical Reporter averred. ‘In the language of the Kodakers, when a man “presses the button” the woman does the rest.’ The best riposte was surely that delivered by Gertrude Stein’s oblique celebration of the female body in the prose poems of Tender Buttons (1914), although we shouldn’t altogether overlook the Sugababes, whose slyly boisterous ‘Push the Button’ video from 2005 is set in a lift, a technology pretty much synonymous with digital command.

There were other reasons to feel anxious (or, in a way, happy) about what a push of a button might do. Fifty years before the outbreak of the Cold War, doomsday scenarios flourished. One of Plotnick’s rare discussions of fiction concerns a story first published in the magazine Outlook in 1896. The celebrity inventor Thomas Edison is refereeing a conflict between Britain and the US. ‘In order to avert future trouble,’ Edison announces, ‘I think it would be best to destroy England altogether.’ The command is obeyed promptly. ‘I have an electric button connecting with every foreign country,’ Edison continues, in Trump mode, ‘which will destroy it when pressed.’ Edison was by no means a bad choice as referee, given his enthusiasm for electricity’s destructive potential. The Edison Manufacturing Company was responsible for one of the most disgusting documentary films ever made, Electrocuting an Elephant (1903). Still, Edison pales beside Hank Morgan, the time-travelling protagonist of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), who wages modern American war on the cream of medieval European chivalry. The final battle takes place outside the cave to which Morgan and his handful of followers have retreated. Wire fences barricade the approaches. Seated at a kind of console within the perimeter, Morgan is able to ‘command’ the flow of current to these fences by the transmission of ‘electric signals’. One after another, the heavily armoured knights touch a fence and die. Machine guns ‘vomit death’ into those who have somehow found a way through. Morgan, a press-the-button-fiend to the bitter end, decides to light up the slaughter. ‘So I touched a button and set fifty electric suns aflame on the top of our precipice.’

One of the things the literature of the period seems most intriguingly to suggest is that fantasies of digital command preceded not just the computer, but electricity itself. After all, it’s not by chance that cybernetics, the science of communication and control, took its name from the classical Greek term for a steersman, or governor. The steersman steers as much by negative feedback from the vessel’s movements as by physical pressure on a length of wood. Information has always inhabited energy. A much looser connection noted by some American writers was between the transmission of messages and an item of haberdashery. Plotnick, by contrast, doesn’t stop to wonder why it is that ‘toggle’, one of her favourite terms, should mean both a piece of wood or metal used to fasten garments and a key or command operated to opposite effect on successive occasions, like the play/pause button on an online video.

The young Henry James, paraded before William Makepeace Thackeray, who had come to America to lecture on ‘The English Humorists’, found himself under ominous if kindly inspection. ‘The main resource of a small New York boy … at that time was the little sheath-like jacket,’ James was to recall, ‘tight to the body, closed at the neck and adorned in front with a single row of brass buttons.’ In England, Thackeray declared, people would undoubtedly address a boy wearing such a jacket as ‘Buttons’. He may well have been thinking of Buttons the page in the pantomime version of Cinderella. In America, too, the pages or ‘call boys’ whose instant availability was crucial to the smooth functioning of office block, luxury hotel and legislative chamber alike could be identified by the double or cruciform array of buttons on their tunics. In Howells’s A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890), one member of an apartment-hunting couple remarks that the other had long been in search of a building manned by a call boy with ‘electric buttons all over him’. The tunic was a diagram of digital command, no less distinctive than Mercury’s winged sandals and cap. Call boys did not so much convey as embody information. Their eventual demise, as the spread of two-way telecommunications technologies rendered them redundant, could thus be understood as the replacement of one medium by another. Answering the telephone, the protagonist of Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (1920) reflects on the progress of civilisation. ‘How far they were from the days when the legs of the brass-buttoned messenger boy had been New York’s only means of quick communication!’ Maybe haberdashery was where all the toggling began.