Rachel Plotnick on her book, Power Button

Power Button

Interview by Kevin Laddapong


Kevin Laddapong: In Power Button, you bring readers back to the early days of buttons and encourage readers to think about the button in a new way. You have shown the discursiveness of technological development and the complexity of how buttons are socially embedded, from calling for service to turning on the light. How did you decide which buttons to focus on, given that buttons are so ubiquitous? 

Rachel Plotnick: The ubiquity of buttons posed a big challenge for my study, and I was quickly daunted by it. As you suggest, I knew it wouldn’t be possible to write about every button that existed at the turn of the twentieth century. So, I took an approach that is often suggested in science and technology studies (STS) – which recommends that scholars “follow the actors.” In other words, I started looking to see what people called a button (for example, sometimes the ends of telegraph keys were called buttons) and how they talked about using buttons (some were pulled or turned instead of pushed). I tried not to impose my own categories of what counted as a button, but rather to use this grounded approach of seeing what emerged. Because most homes didn’t have electricity at this historical moment, button interfaces were perceived more as a novelty and that made it a bit easier. Most discussion circulated around buttons as mechanisms for control (push a button for light, an elevator, to take a picture, and so on) or as mechanisms for communication (to call a servant, trigger an alarm, honk a horn). As I began to see these categories rise to the surface, it was easier to sort and make sense of which buttons mattered for my story.

Kevin Laddapong: When many media scholars think about technology, they focus upon technologists, electricians, engineers, and other STEM figures. But the protagonists of this book tend to be “advertisers”. We see from your book that they defined the technology, told us who was eligible to push the button, and how should we perceive the buttons. Can you say more about the influences of these surprising non-STEM characters in this very scientific advancement?  

Rachel Plotnick: I think you’re right that advertisers played a large role in influencing discourse about buttons. While there were many other actors, too (such as inventors, educators, or electrical companies), the idea of pushing a button really appealed to advertisers because they could sell new technologies of industrialization and electrification as safe, non-threatening, and effortless. It’s no surprise that Kodak’s slogan, “You press the button, we do the rest” took hold so widely at the time. It came to symbolize the seductiveness of automaticity – that consumers didn’t need to be especially skilled or well-versed in picture development (or photography in general) to own and operate a camera. In this regard, buttons acted as a kind of gateway to a whole world of mechanisms and consumer products that demanded limited input from their users. Advertisers often talked about using the button as a way to connote pleasure. Though this sometimes backfired, in that people perceived pushing buttons as too hedonistic and lazy, advertisers continued to rally around the concept. We can see this fixation still at work today – from the Staples “Easy” button to Uber’s “tap for a ride.” Buttons conjure up fantasies of instant gratification that seem almost timeless.

Kevin Laddapong: One of the key themes in your book is the power momentum between button-pushers and pushed. It was convolutedly interlocked with different levels of identities, haves and have-nots, men and women, or children, and adults. How did the technology help produce these button-pushing bodies?

Rachel Plotnick: This theme really emerged – quite noticeably – through the course of my research. It was fascinating to see how many people complained about power imbalances that they felt were exacerbated by button pushing. When I say people, this usually meant people who were already socially disadvantaged or othered in some way – due to race, class, gender or a combination of those factors. Servants were used to being heralded by bell systems, but when bells became electric and were installed at every bedpost, under the dining room table, next to the sofa, and so on, then control of those servants’ bodies and their movement became increasingly discreet and ubiquitous. Their bodies were made to move throughout homes while the button-pusher could remain stationary to herald whatever (or whomever) they desired. A similar dynamic existed between employers and employees. The rise of the so-called push-button manager likely did not have to do only with buttons, as at this historical moment places of business were undergoing industrialization and new bureaucratic procedures were taking hold. Buttons functioned as another bureaucratic measure and mechanism for exerting authority. As disparities between managers and employees became greater (a separation of white-collar workers from blue collar workers or head workers from manual laborers), button pushing drew attention to these stratifications. Employees disliked that their employers could sit behind a desk and command them at a moment’s notice. I call this digital command – an effortless gesture generated with the touch of a finger. I think it is critical to acknowledge that when people pushed buttons, it always involved someone’s labor (and the physical movement of bodies) to make one’s desires appear.

Kevin Laddapong: Gathering from your book, buttons hid the messy wires, simplified the electronic circuits in one touch, most importantly, disguised the underlying labor. But now, we are living in the digital age and many physical buttons become graphics or even voice controls. Do modern-day buttons still serve class inequality and labor exploitation? What is the lesson we can learn from the development of buttons regarding these issues?

Rachel Plotnick: That’s a great question. From a technical perspective, buttons are even further removed from the actions they trigger. Digital buttons that require only a tap or a swipe seem to provide anything one desires, from a ride to a roll of toilet paper. Even emotions are “buttonized,” in a sense: we click buttons to share our feelings in social media as a primary way of interacting with others. Yet, despite these significant differences from the turn of the twentieth century, I would argue that inequality and exploitation still figure significantly into button dynamics. I think the case of Amazon provides a good example. Consumers can “push” a button for nearly any product imaginable (for awhile, Amazon even had physical Dash buttons one could affix throughout their home). While this consumption feels effortless and gratifying, it elides the power dynamics that make such pushing possible. What happens after you click “purchase”? Whose bodies have to carry out and fulfill the orders? How are those bodies treated? Paid? What power dynamics exist in the factory, the warehouse, on the streets where the packages are delivered? What are the environmental implications? And who has the luxury or privilege to order Amazon items at will in the first place? Advertisers and manufacturers have always turned to buttons as a way to sell pleasure and instant gratification, so I see an emphasis on clicking, pushing, tapping and swiping on the Internet and apps as (in many ways) a continuation of the power relationships that began more than 100 years ago. We could take this even farther and think about drone warfare as an even higher stakes example of using buttons to make some bodies expendable while others sit in their command centers; what does it mean for armchair generals to decide who lives and who dies with a push of a button?

Philip Seargeant on his new book The Emoji Revolution

The Emoji Revolution : How Technology is Shaping the Future of Communication - Philip Seargeant

Interview by Kevin Laddapong


Kevin Laddapong: The Emoji Revolution allows us to revisit Linguistics 101 from the perspective of how we use emoji. It is eye-opening to see how emoji can be analyzed so effectively on every level of linguistic production and expression, from phonological, morphological, syntactic, semantic, narrative, or even poetic. Do you think emoji are unusual phenomenon in this regard?

Philip Seargeant: One of the aims of the book was to show how emoji are very much a part of the history of human language, and particularly the history of writing. Although they may seem a completely new phenomenon (and even, perhaps, a slightly frivolous one), in actual fact we can find direct precedents for many aspects of them throughout history – from the way they relate to other pictographic writing systems, to the way they’re used to express irony and emotional framing.

The reason behind their popularity, I think, is that they’re so flexible as a means of communication, and particularly that they allow for, if not encourage, creativity in their use. Part of this creativity is prompted by the fact that they’re a reasonable small, closed system (there are only a few thousand emoji in total), so if people want to try to express more complicated ideas they have to find inventive ways of doing so, often exploiting a range of different communicative tropes to do so.

Kevin Laddapong: One of the outstanding characters in your book is Jonathan Swift. Why is his story relevant to how people use emoji today? What do we learn about creative and playful communicative practices throughout history through your comparison?

Philip Seargeant: In Gulliver’s Travels, Swift parodies many of the scientific trends of his time, including ones concerning language. As a satirist, he takes real life ideas which are slightly ludicrous, and then exaggerates them to make them fully absurd. One of his targets is the trend for people trying to create a supposedly perfect language because they feel human language is too vague and imprecise. The solution that the scholars in the novel have come up with is to carry a vast array of objects on their backs, so that whenever they want to refer to something they simply take out the object and point to it. The idea that ‘Words are only Names for Things’ is obviously a very simplistic and misguided understanding of how language works; but it’s similar, I think, to how a lot of people probably think emoji work: that is, emoji are just pictures of objects, and that’s how we use them to communicate. But just as language is much more than words, so the way emoji are used involves a lot more than the simple pictorial representation of objects.

Kevin Laddapong: You mention the importance of language standardization and universalization in your book. Emoji are evidently the product of successful attempts at standardizing and universalizing a form of communication, yet as you point out, these attempts are dramatically different from any other attempts. Why did emoji experience such a different destiny?  What did Unicode Consortium and other actors do differently from other language regulators?

Philip Seargeant: Emoji are standardised in terms of their form because they’re a digital writing system which needs to be compatible across different platforms around the world. This is the only reason that a single body (in this case the Unicode Consortium) is able to regulate their form – and even then, the different platforms have slightly different designs for each character. This is very different situation from other languages, where the speech community itself generates new words and practices, and then a language academy can only try to regulate this after the event. It’s also worth noting that although the Unicode Consortium regulate the form of emoji, they can’t regulate the way they’re used, so there’s still variety in the meanings they accrue and patterns of usage from speech community to speech community.

Kevin Laddapong: Emoji clearly could only be possible in a context of capitalism and hyper-consumerism. Towards the end, you suggest that emoji is seamlessly fused with neoliberal practices. Apart from million-dollar Twitter emoji deals, what other aspects allow emoji to be so compatible with neoliberalism, and why do we have to be concerned about this?

Philip Seargeant: In many ways, this is part of the general business strategy of the big tech companies, who are constantly looking for ways to engage users/customers, and ensure that their products are in a continual state of development so that people feel an endless desire to keep up-to-date with them. Emoji are updated on a yearly basis, along with related innovations such as Apple’s Memoji, and thus become a attractive sales feature for new hardware, while also being a very popular resource for marketing initiatives. Again, this is unusual for what is essentially a writing system, but is, as you say, in line with a hypercapitalist society.

Kevin Laddapong: Throughout the book, you have hinted about the intervention of machines in our human interaction. Emoji have been designed, developed, and coded to be neatly merged with auto-correction and word suggestion technologies.   Are emoji part of a larger trend — how else is communication changing to accommodate the demands of digital technologies?

Philip Seargeant: That’s a very large topic. The simple answer is that so much of modern communication is mediated via computers, and thus digital technologies have a huge influence on how we communicate. Emoji are rather unusual in that it is the writing system itself which is regulated – and indeed owned, to a degree – by the big tech companies, and so these companies get to decide which emoji are appropriate and which aren’t, and to assign meanings to them on autopredict, and so on. But increasingly the spaces in which we communicate – be it Facebook, Gmail, Twitter, and so on – are also owned by the huge tech companies, and their business models thus influence all aspects of our communication. Not only will Gmail gives you various ‘smart reply’ options, but it is also able to scan or extract data from your messages, while what you write or post on social media is, to all intents and purposes, in the public domain, and also has to abide by the platform’s guidelines on expression. All of this means that this type of communication takes place within a very different environment from, say, a face-to-face conversation, and the specifics of this environment have an influence on both what we say and how we say it.

Haidy Geismar on her new book, Museum Object Lessons for the Digital Age

Museum Object Lessons for the Digital Age Cover


Interview by Joshua Bell

Joshua Bell: Your book is a manifesto of sorts of what the digital – as a relatively new domain – does for more traditional objects in museums, how the digital as a different constitution of relations is and isn’t unique, what the digital does (and doesn’t do) to our understanding of heritage, and how by engaging with these relations and configurations we can begin to see museums anew. Could you comment on what prompted you to write this book?

Haidy Geismar: Over the course of my research career, since starting in around 2000, almost all the practices I have been involved with in museums have migrated into the digital: collecting and archiving, discussions about property rights, community and artist interventions, and new forms of display, are all increasingly situated within digital media. I was struck however by the lack of continuity between previous practices and these new digital projects. There seemed to be an assumption that the digital provided “a way out”, particularly for the complex legacy of the ethnographic collection. My own empirical observations however, were showing how many digital projects were in fact reproducing concepts and issues that already existed.  The case of digital repatriation is a great example, which you explored in a great series of workshops that you and Kim Christen convened at the Smithsonian which was published in the collection “After the Return”. Digital repatriation burst out of the reproductive affordances of digital media and was quickly embraced as a way for museums to redeem themselves by sharing collections and supposedly giving up sovereignty or ownership over indigenous cultures. As the papers in your collection explore, this promise was not always borne out in practice. Instead the digital came to afford a continued negotiation between source communities and museums/archives, and it became yet another site of contested sovereignty, in which the history of collecting, and of colonialism, could not be forgotten. I wanted to write a book that tracked between the digital and the analogue and argued for a ethnographic perspective on the digital that placed it in a context beyond its own.

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