The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

Unbuttoned: The Meaning of Buttons in a Touchscreen World

We live in an increasingly button-less world. Buttons have simply gone out of style—both on jeans and on electronic devices. They’ve been replaced by zippers and touchscreens. And thus far, buttons have only made a comeback on clothing—this time for fashion more than function. They are “vintage”—a minor status symbol. Oh, you wear pants with buttons? You must be able to afford a slower pace of life.

The electronics world is another story though. Among cell phones, eReaders, and tablets, buttons just aren’t old enough to make a comeback. Touchscreens are all the rage. The earliest Kindles had full keyboards. So did BlackBerrys. Old cell phones had 12-button keypads. Add power and volume buttons and you have at least 15 physical buttons on a single phone. The keypad’s buttons also performed multiple functions—as numbers and letters, as navigational arrows. But then came the “Jesus Phone” as it was called. It saved us from our buttons—reducing them to just 4—power, up and down volume, and the home button.

Simulating the Button

Although physical buttons disappeared, their functions were still needed for, say, dialing and, increasingly, for texting. So underneath the smooth surface of the touchscreen, designers installed simulated buttons. These new “buttons” were pixel-based images paired with location sensors—approximating the old physical buttons we were used to, but in a technostalgicway and in a more technically complicated way.

Nonetheless, what the iPhone took away in physical buttons it replaced ten-fold in new, simulated buttons. Not only that, but new buttons became possible: “apps.” Tiled touchscreens replaced meandering menus. What was impossible for physical keypads became possible for touchscreens. Thus, the keypad’s one dozen buttons were replaced with dozens upon dozens of buttons—“pressed down, shaken together, and overflowing.”

Now that buttons were trapped behind glass, physical buttons lost their texture. This “smoothing” happened in multiple ways. One: Buttons no longer stayed in one place. Buttons that were once fixed now floated. Vintage buttons had two, three, or maybe four functions, but now every pixel on the touchscreen could have a nearly infinite number of functions. The meaning of a fixed space was no longer plural but manifold.

Two: Buttons and fingers no longer danced together in a give-and-take. Touchscreens lost the clickable sensation we had from tapping physical buttons. To retrieve “some sense” of that tactile experience, developers offered two alternatives: vibrations and sounds. The sound feature— typically a clicking sound—acknowledges a screen tap of some kind. The more common vibration feature is called “haptic feedback.” With any screen tap, the phone shivers like a titillated lover, letting the user know that the computer received an input of some sort. Whether it was the intended input, the user must closely watch. Thus, the clicking sensation of physical buttons is either abstracted to vibrations or sounds—but more and more it is abandoned altogether.

In all, the iPhone, and most smartphones after it, abstracted and simulated the buttons. With this, the singular character of buttons—visually, spatially, topographically, and tactilely—was dispersed into an assortment of approximate meanings. Some we completely abandoned. Buttons were no longer buttons but constellations of correlated characteristics.

Four Meanings of Buttons

Now that a button is no longer a singular object, its various “meanings” can now be dissected, understood, and in some cases stripped away. These meanings include the tactile, the spatial, the topographic, and the visual.

Speaking for myself, I only use haptic feedback for the barest of features: unlock, power off, and sound on/off. I have mostly done away with any tactile sensation, as I think most people have. Gone with it is the tactile meaning of buttons.

In the case of the touchscreen, the spatial and visual meaning is not exactly gone, but is now floating and inflated. The touchscreen has multiple screens—each screen, a unique landscape. The single smooth surface offers itself for multiple landscapes and constantly changing meanings. At one moment, a swipe will unlock the phone; the next, the same swipe will answer an incoming call. Same motion, same locations, different meanings. The touchscreen’s agnosticism permits multiplied meanings.

The touchscreen has also paved over the topography of the keypad. Like the U.S. interstate system, the canyons and ridges of the keypad have been smoothed away, the rough places made plain, the history of the land concealed by black asphalt and fast cars. Our touchscreens keep no record of our well-trod paths.

Thus, keypads once established landscapes for us with fixed topographies of tactile information, and these keypads contained limited and fixed meanings. Today, touchscreens offer us a blank space to populate with multiple landscapes, multiple meanings, and almost no tactile information.

Less Body, More Brains

Now that we’ve unpacked the meaning of buttons and understood how these meanings have been either multiplied or abandoned, we can more easily see why we become so immersed in our touchscreens: Besides being interactive, they also demand a high degree of attention. Without texture, touchscreens can’t communicate with our bodies, so we must concentrate with our minds.

Buttons play a worthwhile role in our lives. At one time, tactile keypads implicitly communicated with our bodies, and so our minds could afford to spend their attention elsewhere. Now with touchscreens, no longer. We must now focus more with our minds precisely because we cannot engage as much with our bodies—the tactile, spatial, and topographic meanings of buttons have been cut off from our bodies. We have no other choice. We are numb. The tangible knowing that once took place with real buttons is no longer possible. What was once possible with keypads became impossible with touchscreens. We must now more precisely control our bodies. In ways we didn’t have to before. Before the abstraction of buttons.

Some inventors have tried to recover the topographic and tactile character of buttons with screens that raise and lower. But consumers have yet to see the technology.

Designing the perfect replacement for buttons isn’t easy. It’s hard to explode a button and keep all its meanings in tact. So we make sacrifices—intentionally or unintentionally. We sacrifice topography and tactility. And we compensate for decreased body knowledge by increasing our mental concentration. Thus, we lose out at both ends—less body knowledge, less attention to spare. The Faustian bargain of a touchscreen.

Touchscreens demand our full attention. It’s why people disappear when their phone rings. It’s why texting and driving is so dangerous. Touchscreens won’t give us what we want unless we give them what they need. It’s why we are zombies walking past each other. The touchscreen: It needs our brains. It seems the Jesus Phone wasn’t quite the savior we thought it would be.

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