I was born at an interesting time, but aren't we all? My mom sent me into the world a few months before Neil Armstrong did his "giant leap." I became self aware in the mid seventies and came of age in the eighties. During that time, especially 1975 to around 1983 I became fascinated with buttons (the pushing type, not the holding your shirt closed type) for they represented technology and the manifestation of my imagination.
I forgot about this obsession until a few nights ago when I was using my iPhone. After entering terms for a Google search in it, I realized its touchscreen did not have the satisfaction of feeling the physical responsive reply of a button actually being depressed or feeling the click. That night I couldn't sleep because a flood of button memories came rushing in and I had to think about why the actual act of pushing buttons used to be my heart crying out for technology (and all its possibilities) that did not exist yet in my personal life. I also realized just how few buttons existed in my life back then. They mainly turned on or off things or made things manually open, close or shift.
Computers were just starting to be used in major systems, such as space flight when I was born. By the early nineties, our cars had computers much more powerful than those that were on the Apollo spaceships. At the same time as the early Apollo missions, the television show Star Trek (1966-1969) accentuated the major role of a central computer that regulated the ship, kept a huge database of information, was used for navigation, medical diagnosis, making food, and a multitude of other applications.
I remember the first time I watched Star Trek I was amazed by all the buttons. They did so many things. Sulu could fire the phasers, Scotty could maintain the engines, Dr. McCoy could diagnosis patients by twisting a dial, moving slider and pushing a button. After seeing that I wanted to push every button around, especially if it made something happen using electricity.
During the Christmas break of 1975, we moved into a new home in Billings, Montana and I soon found every new-to-me button in the house. The doorbell gave immediate satisfaction but became boring after a few repetitive pushes. The two buttons on the stove vent hood turned on the fan or the light. I liked those, one was red and the other was black. We had a new box fan that used push buttons to select the speeds. The only other buttons around my life were the ones on the car's AM radio that changed the stations. I would sometimes sit in the car in our driveway and push the buttons to watch the needle bounce around the radio dial. In my mind I was flying a space ship though and these buttons were controlling everything important.
My obsession with controlling technology and pushing buttons went crazy in June 1977. My mom took me to see Star Wars. Along with all the aspects of it that an 8 year old boy could become obsessed with (my first crush was for Princess Leia), I loved all the damn buttons. The spaceships and fighters had them, the Death Star was full of buttons that could operate trash compactors or destroy planets. Even Darth Vader had them on his chest which kept him alive. My favorite button though was the one and only button on the light saber. I truly understood Obi Wan Kenobi's words of wisdom about this powerful weapon as he gave Luke Skywalker his father's light saber. This simple elegant weapon only needed one button to do the bidding of the user.
Obi-Wan: "I have something here for you. Your father wanted you to have this when you were old enough, but your uncle wouldn't allow it. He feared you might follow old Obi-Wan on some damned-fool idealistic crusade like your father did."God, I wanted a light saber.
Luke: "What is it?"
Obi-Wan: "Your father's lightsaber. This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight. Not as clumsy or as random as a blaster. An elegant weapon... for a more civilized age."
Robot Chicken Star Wars 3 - Clip 2 from Revolver Entertainment on Vimeo.
Around that time more buttons began appearing at home. I can remember going to the store with my dad to buy our first calculator and distinctly recall its $80 price tag. It had red LED numbers and could only perform addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, and nothing else. It was magic to me. It was our first computer. It was TECHNOLOGY.
My mom was so excited for it. She took care of the family checkbook and finances and always did the math on scratch paper. This technology saved her hours of work over the course of a year. On the other hand, I grew bored of its mathematical uses and soon used it as part of a cardboard spaceship cockpit which had many cardboard buttons, but the calculator became the ships computer. I remember how stiff the buttons were and could sense the click from it both through auditory and tactical feedback.
After that we got a stereo record player with more buttons, followed by a Kleenex box shaped tape recorder. More buttons that actually did things were entering my life. With all of this I was not satiated, my friends had microwave ovens and push button phones that I coveted. Each time I got to push one of these buttons and tactically feel a response back and and an action as a response, I felt the power of technologies changing our lives.
In 1980 I got my first handheld electronic game, football. After that I started to slowly lose my fascination with buttons. Two major things came into my life about then that made me put my button fetish away.
The first were the early Radio Shack computers we got at school. They started to represent technology because they could actually do the things that I imagined and dreamed of during my playtime with the old buttons around me. I no longer had to pretend a calculator controlled my space ship. I could use a real computer to do computer things. Maybe part of this change also came from entering my adolescence and the fading away of imagination and play and the beginning of early adulthood. Play was for kids. Computers were for real.
This growing older also brought the second thing to change me, puberty. Playing with toys, no matter how cool, took a distant backseat to the primal and novel feelings and urges that started pushing through my body and taking no prisoners. I regressed from the development of technology in a way and started to grow into my primal sexual male self.
Since those early computer days, these machines became part of my daily life and were tools more than imaginative play escapes (until the internet came along, but that is a different story). I used a typewriter when I entered college to write my papers. I had a 280 PC by the end of that degree to print out my papers. That computer was a tool and not much more.
The touch screen has taken over in so many electronics in the past decade. The iPhone, iPad, and even the automated checkout counter at my local grocery store use touchscreens. I love the speed and simplicity of these machines and the elastic capabilities that can completely change the use of the device by simply opening a different screen and using something new. While I use these devices everyday, I am starting to miss those simple, early technological devices that had tactile physical responses from being pressed. I miss the simplicity of one button controlling one thing. Maybe that is one reason I love my Nikon dSLR over my iPhone and point and shoot digital cameras. I push the shutter release and can feel it sink into the camera body and then both feel and hear the shutter release and reset allowing the light from the image to be recorded. One motion, one action, one function. To paraphrase Obi Wan - An elegant technology... for a more civilized age."