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August 26, 2013

Clocks make us late

I’ve started reading Revolution in Time by David Landes, a history of clocks and time. It’s delightful.

Landes notes that in the mid-eighteenth century, a clerk to the Chinese Emperor acknowledged that Western clocks were “finer than the old methods used in China.” But, the clerk adds, Western clocks need to be maintained and repaired. “Therefore among the court officials there are some who possess these things, but they still forget meetings.” The clerk concludes, “…those in the court who never miss meetings are the ones who do not own clocks.” (pp. 50-1.)

(I’m truly sorry to say that David Landes died a few days ago.)

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August 7, 2013

When push buttons destroyed civilization

Rachel Plotnick has an article in Technology and Culture called “At the Interface: The Case of the Electric Push Button, 1880-1923″[1] that begins by recounting the early reaction to push buttons. She cites a book by “educator and activist Dorothy Canfield Fisher”:

Fisher recognized how use of push-button interfaces had contributed to making electrical experiences effortless, opaque, and therefore unquestioned by consumers. She and others worried that if button-pressers could not envision the mechanical processes that happened behind buttons, they would lose all ability to navigate in the world. [p. 814]

We obviously didn’t get perpetually lost, but that doesn’t mean that Fisher was wrong to raise the alarm, especially if the alarm was raised by slamming down on a big ol’ button.

The rest of the article is about the educational strategies used by manufacturers, journalists, advertisers and others, starting in 1880, to “make button interfaces intelligible to consumers.” [815] She notes a split between those who thought customers would be more comfortable with electricity if they understood what happened on the other side of the button and those who thought it best to keep electricity as uncomplicated to the user as possible. Business was at stake here: Rachel notes that by 1915, push buttons were letting us take electricity for granted, which meant “the electrical industry faced an apathetic populace” that didn’t appreciate the complexity or expense of their service.[835]


..And slightly reminiscent of a 1950 instructional video from AT&T on how to dial a rotary phone.

In fact, here’s an earlier public service announcement:

[1] Rachel Plotnick, “At the Interface: The Case of the Electric Push Button, 1880รข??1923,” Technology and Culture, Volume 53, Number 4, October 2012, pp. 815-845 DOI: 10.1353/tech.2012.0138

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