South by Southwest Digest

It’s been about a week now since I’ve been back from SxSW interactive, and I’ve been constantly thinking about what I saw, who I met and what I learned—so much of it pertains to Talk to Me and what the show is about it is all-consuming project to track down all the leads. I thought, since due to my techie-novice status, I was nowhere near the ability to blog live from the conference, I would “slow journal” once I was back—which means I am transcribing my low-tech pen and paper notes from selected panels I attended, editing them as I go, and annotating what I liked for Talk to Me.  I will separate them out by title of the panel, so you know which ones I attended (you can also see my schedule here—and since SxSW was so big and there were many interesting things going on at once, I’m hoping that they will soon post the panels I missed via podcast and you tube—and I will link to them.

Day One: History of the Button

I chose to attend this panel because I recognized the presenter’s name, Bill DeRouchey, from the Interaction Design Conference (IxDA) that Paola attended in February.  He had given us some great info while we were researching the acquisition of the @ sign and  since it was based in history, I thought it would be a good first panel to attend, to ease my way into the contemporary (or even future) design world that is SxSW. He has generously shred his slideshow with us hereBill started out by discussing what “the button” is. The button, he explains is a way that we have always understood and interacted with technology since machines have become part of our lives.  Buttons have moved, just like our relationship to technology, from the physical—actually pushing—to the virtual—on a touch screen, or even towards the invisible—links on a webpage.  His study of the button as Bill explained, is a microcosm of our relationship to technology. He broke down the history of people interacting with technology since the industrial revolution into these categories, he called “Generations of Interaction.”

1. Lever (up until 1900)

2. Button (from 1900 until now)

3. Surface (from now on)

4. Fluid (soon)

He described the mechanical age is about scale, for example, levers scale motion, the railroad compressed time and the telegraph compressed distance.  What the button did is take it one step further and abstract motion.  The first button, he thinks is either a light switch like this or a similar one on a flashlight—which were carried by the NYC Police Department as early as the 1890s.  The button abstracts motion because what you are doing (pushing) doesn’t necessarily correspond to a light turning on (or whatever mechanical process you set in motion by pushing).  With a lever, whatever motion you were doing (pumping, cranking, etc.) was directly related to the activity the machine was performing.  Bill went on to discuss how the action of pressing a button caught on as way to describe that something was easy. Kodak’s slogan “you press the button, we do the rest” for their first point-and-shoot cameras was an example he used from the turn of the 20th century.  What I thought was really interesting was a cartoon he showed from Life magazine depicting the “future” of information from 1911 that basically illustrated what the internet would be—using technology that they had then.  Look closely and you can see that the old man, with the help of his robot butler, is keeping track of his son via a projection, is listening to the Opera “delivered his door,” hearing “events as they transpire, accurately recorded,” and receiving “ocean breezes” from around the world from the gramophones surrounding him.  In-home entertainment, keeping track of your family and friends remotely and up-to-the-minute news were as desired 100 years ago as they are now according to Harry Grant Dart.

Bill went on to discuss the first most prevalent use of buttons in American homes was the radio, and the preset option on a radio was the first notion of “saving” a location with the touch of a button. For the next 20 years or so, in the 1930s and 40s, buttons represented luxury, time-saving and easiness. (My favorite robot from the New York 1939 World’s Fair is Electro, see him smoke a cigarette here.) Dreams of robot servants and the promise of a technologically advanced future pulled American through the Depression and wartime until the 1950s, when “push-button technology” became a reality for the suburban housewife.  Ads from the time stated that buttons made a task so easy, that “even a woman could do it.”

Bill then went through a timeline of landmarks in button history: in 1956, the remote control was invented, and this was the first time machines could be controlled by pushing a button that isn’t even on the device you are wanting to control.  In the 1950s and 60s, buttons started representing fear.  There was all sorts of propaganda asking “who has their finger on the button?” meaning who is in control of nuclear weapons, and referencing how automated war had become since the end of World War II (speaking of launch buttons, check out this pretty cute t shirt) .

Into the 1960s and early 70s, Bill talked about how buttons symbolized control—switchboard operators, and early computers in popular culture often get upset and spit out papers and go berserk when the wrong button is pushed.  Buttons, at this point are the interface that humans have to contend with when trying to organize their work with the aid of a machine—the operator has to be an expert or else the machines will cause disaster. And finally in 1977 the Atari joystick hits the market and for most of the 1980s, buttons represent play.  To be sure, pinball machines had been around since the 1940s, but arcade games and at home systems started shaping the different actions you could control with a button.  We see funny buttons that pertain to specific games like “shoot,” “flap,” “punch,” and so on.

1984 is the real culmination of buttons in material culture, when they become virtual in the mainstream, with the home computer and the mouse, which had been in existence since the 1960s, but was popularized by Apple in the 1980s.  Apple even took out a multiple page advertisements to describe how to “point and click.” As software evolved and the world wide web took shape in the 1980s and 90s, buttons started to lose shape. They move from rectangular and shaded shapes to words in the color blue and an underline, turning into links.  Bill pointed out that the amount of content you can interact with on a given webpage, he used Amazon’s homepage as an example, is approaching everything. Pictures, words, names, anything, we all intuitively understand is “clickable.” We’re moving quickly towards touch, and that Apple in general is moving towards eliminating real buttons of any kind (he said jokingly that Steve Jobs doesn’t even wear buttons, that is how much he hates them).

At this point, Bill said that buttons don’t need any sort of form, borders, shape, contour, words, or ornamentation for us to know what to do with them, yet we attribute so much to them throughout history: ease, process, control, magic, fear, play, simplicity, and automation.  Almost everything is interactive and we are approaching his next generational phase, which Bill termed as “fluid.”  He defined this as dynamic tactile surfaces that will be everywhere, which will employ disposable physical interfaces.  An example he showed of this was a project from Carnegie Mellon students that is a shape shifting screen that “grows” button when you need them.[/youtube]

I thought this would be an excellent piece to research for Talk to Me, and we will definitely have to consider the development of the button as we tackle the past and future of interaction design.  Bill ended by stating that the button is the most influential yet least appreciated innovation of the 20th century.

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One Comment

  1. Marc Djermaghian
    Posted April 11, 2010 at 12:17 am | Permalink

    There is a project called ‘flat elephant walks’,
    constructed by Shin Egashira in 2007′ and visible in
    the website ‘’.
    This incredible piece of design seems intriguingly related to some of the themes, topics
    and criteria of the exhibition ‘Talk to me’.
    Check it.