Monday, 20 April 2015

Control button

Have you ever pressed the button on a pedestrian crossing and doubted whether the button really affects the timing of the traffic lights? Thanks to Chris Baraniuk writing for BBC - Future I now know that - at least sometimes - it doesn't. Placebo buttons (AKA idiot buttons) are apparently a thing, at pedestrian crossings, or on London Underground trains, where pressing the button to open the carriage doors doesn't affect when the automatic doors will actually open, or in offices where employees can assuage their feelings of powerlessness by pressing a fake button which purports to adjust the thermostat controlling the workspace air con.

But don't worry, folks, the little white lies are only for your own good:
“Feeling you have control over your world is a desirable state,” she [psychologist Ellen Langer] explains. When it comes to those deceptive traffic light buttons, Langer says there could be a whole host of reasons why the placebo effect might be counted as a good thing. “Doing something is better than doing nothing, so people believe,” she says. “And when you go to press the button your attention is on the activity at hand. If I’m just standing at the corner I may not even see the light change, or I might only catch the last part of the change, in which case I could put myself in danger.”

...The truth is that technology has long been deceiving us. Sometimes this is ethically questionable, but in other cases the user benefits from a sense of control and reassurance that the system is working as it should. 
Which sounds plausible ... kind of ... but it does make you wonder about the sort of power relations going on here - the users of the system are conned into thinking they're some kind of engaged stakeholders when in reality they have as much control as lab rats in a Skinner box.

It's also a worrying sign of how cheaply acquiescence can be bought (or, more accurately, how easily it can be stolen). But at least it provides us with a new metaphor for these days of management and nudge. Where the Roman elite talked about "bread and circuses" as shorthand for the real crumbs they had to throw the plebs to keep them from rioting, we've got "idiot button" to describe the trigger for those fake feelings of autonomy and agency which keep the Not Very Important People in their place (also see "engagement", "choice"and "consultation").