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Right on the Button

March 09, 2003

Isn't it amazing how every day just enough news happens to fill every newspaper? Such illusions have become an integral part of modern human life, allowing us to feel that despite crowded cities and lives and impersonal technology, we really do understand and retain some control. This need to feel in at least partial command may be uniquely human. It's hard, for instance, to picture an alpha wolf gathering the entire pack to seek consensus on what species to hunt for dinner. Those desiring to eat can follow the leader or become dinner.

The abiding importance of illusions came to mind the other day because of an article about a workplace placebo. The placebo effect is well known in medical tests; a control group receives not the new medicine under examination but plain sugar tablets. Quite sincerely, many participants report great relief. Hearing a child complain of a funny taste in her food, one or two parents in history may have pretended to add something in the kitchen that improves the meal's taste.

Now comes confirmation that countless office thermostats aren't really connected to anything. Many employers and landlords are sick of Goldilocks office workers -- too hot, too cold, never just right. So they install a thermostat offering apparent empowerment. That's all. Feeling warm? Turn up the AC and feel cooler, even though nothing whatsoever has changed. Too cold? Adjust the heat. Now that's more like it. And no more calls to frustrated heating technicians.

Knowing this causes wonder about other illusions. Do you think those Door Close elevator buttons really work? You push and push and push and push. Eventually the door closes. You nod to fellow passengers about taking control and feel good.

Or the crosswalk button. In a hurry and angry because an impertinent red light prohibits walking now? Just jab the Walk button 20 or 25 times, implying to Stoplight Control that an impatient mob is assembling and the Walk light had better illuminate soon. Eventually, it does and you stride off feeling satisfied about halting all traffic.

The potency of TV remotes is the power to control. Tired of bubble-headed blather or joyful weathermen effusing unwanted jolliness into your home? Click. They're history. What other buttons could we use? Why shouldn't drivers have buttons like pedestrians? Push one on your dash and all traffic lights go green your way until you pass and then who cares? Or a freeway button you could tap, causing all slow drivers in front to feel the inexplicable urge to pull over.

Why not empower newspaper readers too? If you get weekday home delivery of The Times, push this X several times. Tomorrow's paper will automatically be delivered.

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