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Title: Pressing matters : the finger-tip control of technology in America's age of affluence
Author: Weiss, E. H.
ISNI:       0000 0004 7225 0594
Awarding Body: UCL (University College London)
Current Institution: University College London (University of London)
Date of Award: 2017
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The way in which people interact with machines is changing rapidly. The touch screen has become so common now that it no longer rouses amazement. It is also likely that voice control will become more ubiquitous and even the idea that individuals will be able to control common consumer technologies merely by thinking a command is no longer in the realm of science fiction. It is surprising then how little attention has been focused on the historical and cultural contexts out of which the hyper-efficient control of machines has arisen. This thesis offers to be the first cultural history of the finger-tip control of technology. Its historical context is mid-twentieth century America, a time and place in which pushbutton contrivances became common facets of life from the preparation of toast on breakfast tables to the manufacture of toasters on automated assembly lines. Looking at magazine editorials and market research reports; company memos and union newsletters; state-sponsored trade fairs and especially advertisements from the period, I examine how the mere “touch of a button” on things like TV sets, automobile dashboards and elevator cars could be understood as the exemplary means of task execution and enhancement of human potential, and how the moment of user interaction with machines could be charged with significance and stand for a cluster of postwar American life-ways with freedom, effortlessness, comfort and convenience as ideals. With the understanding that mid-century affluence was often shadowed by anxiety though, I also draw attention to “pushbutton living’s” discontents. Detractors of the pushbutton equated finger-tip convenience with cultural decadence. Instead of empowering users, the finger-tip simplicity of some technologies were said to activate laziness and erode personal agency. I also discuss the unintended consequences that came with pushbutton ease: appliances might be on when assumed to be off, and in the worst case the very existence of the “American way of life” could vanish in a “pushbutton war.” Most importantly though, through case studies in three environments - the home, the automobile, and the workplace - I highlight ways that the finger-tip actuation of machines could have a bearing on social relations.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available