Buttons Are Bougie Now – The Atlantic

The 2022 Ford Bronco Raptor, among the most expensive offerings in the car manufacturer’s line of tough-guy throwback SUVs, features 418 horsepower, a 10-speed transmission, axles borrowed from off-road-racing vehicles, and 37-inch tires meant for driving off sand dunes at unnecessarily high speeds. But when the automotive site Jalopnik got its hands on a Bronco Raptor for testing, the writer José Rodríguez Jr. singled out something else entirely to praise about the $70,000 SUV: its buttons. The Bronco Raptor features an array of buttons, switches, and knobs controlling everything from its off-road lights to its four-wheel-drive mode to whatever a “sway bar disconnect” is. So much can be done by actually pressing or turning an object that Rodríguez Jr. found the vehicle’s in-dash touch screen—the do-it-all “infotainment system” that has become ubiquitous in new vehicles—nearly vestigial.

Then again, the ability to manipulate a physical thing, a button, has become a premium feature not just in vehicles, but on gadgets of all stripes. Although the cheapest models of the Amazon Kindle line are simple touch-screen slabs, the $250 Oasis features dedicated “Page Forward”/“Back” buttons, while the $370 version of the Kindle Scribe comes with a “premium pen” for note-taking that itself has a button. Or consider the Apple Watch, among the most expensive smartwatches around: All models come with a button and knob on their right side just below the bezel—plus a second button for the more expensive Ultra model. The bargain-bin knockoffs sold on Amazon, by contrast, offer nothing but a screen on a strap. Speaking of which, I recently bought an Amazon-brand smart thermostat with a touch screen that nearly burned my house down. Perhaps a dial, like the one on the primo Google Nest, could have helped.

There’s a reason the Star Trek: The Next Generation crew had touch screens way back in 1987: to remind you that it is a show that takes place in the future, which is where the touch screens are and buttons aren’t. At 33, I’m old enough to remember when my dad got a BlackBerry that had ditched its keyboard for a touch screen. Holding the device, with its translucent rubber cover and blank, reflective display, feels like cradling a new era. But although plenty of high-end gadgets, including the iPhone, are mostly screen, something seems to have changed in recent years. “It’s as if in the tech world it’s a sign of luxury: I have a button or a knob,” Douglas Rushkoff, a CUNY professor and the author of Survival of the Richest, told me. Of all things, buttons have seemed to become something like a status symbol in their own right.

For a while, gadgets without buttons were a technological marvel. The original iPhone, the journalist Brian Merchant wrote in his book The One Device, introduced consumers to the wonders of capacitive touch screens, which, to grossly oversimplify things, turned our bodies into buttons, allowing us to interact with touch screens through movements such as swipes and multi-finger gestures. Packing as much utility as a manufacturer can into a screen means that developers can deliver new features and functionality even years after the physical product has shipped. This makes screens into blank canvases of possibility—little black mirrors that can serve as keyboards, TVs, gaming devices, periodicals, web browsers, and so much more.

But somewhere along the way, the touch screen peaked. High-end gizmos that might once have seemed primed to lose their buttons along with everything else have held out, unlike their cheaper alternatives. Think of mixers and samplers in the realm of music, DSLR cameras, or even video games, which have mostly remained so button-focused that you can buy be-buttoned thingamajigs that clamp onto your phone for mobile gaming. The new Sony Walkman, which has six buttons along its side in addition to an Android-enabled touch screen, can run up to $3,700.

In the simplest sense, perhaps buttons are back because they are inadvertent beneficiaries of the cyclical nature of trends, not unlike boot-cut jeans or low-top Air Force Ones. “There’s a fashionable thing of moving back towards analog,” says Alex Stein, a former project manager at Meta who conducted research into the relationship between device usage and class. After more than a decade and changes from ubiquity, the touch screen doesn’t feel cutting-edge anymore. Having a device with lots of buttons is cool now—like mechanical keyboards and record players—because there just aren’t that many out there. We’re at the point where, as Stein told me, “Someone can get ‘credit status’ for discovering them again.”

But what makes buttons seem expensive is that they are expensive. The price of touch screens has plummeted as they have gone mainstream, while buttons require more parts and for programmers and physical designers to work together in real time. And a button can’t be updated the same way an app can—it’s got to be right the first time.

But more than anything else, the resurrection of buttons is a sign that we didn’t really appreciate them in the first place. When I told a friend I was writing this article, she exclaimed, “Ooh! I love buttons!” but struggled to explain exactly why. Maybe they’re just satisfying to our inner Cro-Magnon, always in search of something to mash. Which is a more satisfying experience: woozily tapping your phone to silence the alarm in the morning, or smacking the “Snooze” button on a clock radio? “Tangible, physical things elicit a deeper human response when they physically connect you to the action you’re taking,” says Brian Moore, an independent inventor and developer who has created such curiosities as a box that allows you to type the letters LOL only if you’ve actually laughed out loud.

Moore suggested to me that one way to think about the resurgence of buttons is that they enforce what he calls “restructions,” or constructive restrictions, on our activities. “It’s about intentionally narrowing your options” in a do-everything world, he said. In a way, the presence of a button is a restructuring in and of itself. It constrains our options in a way that lets us actually do what we want to do. For example, in Philadelphia, where I live, there exists not one but (at least) two vintage-typewriter stores, where customers (including Tom Hanks!) can find a refurbished IBM or Olympia that will offer a distraction-free, high-tactility writing experience—something people became willing to pay hundreds of dollars for once the coronavirus pandemic hit. On a typewriter, I wouldn’t be able to screw around like I can on a computer. When my livelihood depends on my ability to pump out words, a device that encourages me to be worth money.

But therein lies the contradiction. “You have to pay for the privilege” of tactility, Rushkoff said. “That’s the way it’s always been. Buttons control the privilege. Hands-on is a privilege.” Wealthy people are able to most directly resist against the massive amounts of agencies we’ve ceded to tech companies, who seem to view every electronic object in our possession as a “surface” that can be integrated into larger, holistic systems. Buttons, meanwhile, represent an old-school sense of genuine control over our technology. A manual car or old TV set can have individual parts break yet still be usable, but to a certain extent, something like a smartphone is an all-or-nothing proposition. Single apps by and large don’t just stop working; more common are larger, physical issues, like a crack in a screen, that affects the usability of every app we’ve got. Buttons do one thing at any moment; they engage our muscle memory in a way that gives us a sense of mastery over a device. While president, Donald Trump had a button on his desk that, when pressed, meant someone had to bring him a Diet Coke. That’s true power in its dumbest possible form, and in a way, it’s what we all want.

But the return of buttons may not be here for good. As our devices become more integrated with one another, we’ll likely be forced to interact with more of them through touch screens and voice commands. After all, it’s better for the companies—even if it’s not for us. Car touch screens, for example, have been shown to require drivers to spend much more time performing simple mid-drive tasks such as changing the temperature than a buttons-and-knobs-based instrument panel does. And yet the “in-car infotainment” market is viewed as a growth area by industry researchers.

Like so much in tech, device design seems to be inexorably marching forward to a future that no one particularly wants. Perhaps years of swiping, tapping, and hunting through sub-menus has us nostalgic for the days when things were just a bit more complicated, a bit more real. Or, at least, willing to pay for a button that can help us pretend.