Nothing’s Happening

A businessman waits to cross a city street at rush hour. He presses the crosswalk signal button once with a forefinger, but nothing happens. He then holds the button in for a count of three seconds -this time leaning his upper body into it. When there is still no response, he steps back, scowls at his watch and then pivots several times. This could mean he's late for an important event or in need of a restroom (In general, people that move as though they are pacing in an invisible phone booth are either worried about being hindered or in need of "the facilities").

Switching to a thumb, he gives the button 5 more emphatic jabs before raising both hands -palms up, in exasperation. Eventually, when the "WALK" sign does appear, he rolls his eyes and then hustles to the other side -shaking his head the whole way. The buttons on his TV remote never ignore him this way; they always obey instantly, at his finger's first push.

I call it "percussive begging" -the idea that repetitively pounding a button will create the same urgency in a machine as it would in a human. Here's some news: Machines with buttons obey only the first press and ignore additional presses for the same command. Some people believe their urgency can be transferred to any "thing" equipped with a button. The cold, technological truth is that "things" don't care. If we deliver a command to a human, we can transfer our urgency to get quicker results by yelling the command -like hitting a button hard. If the increased volume isn't effective, then repeating the command a few times can transfer our urgency to another human. If this is true, then shouldn't pressing a button harder or many times deliver quicker results also?

Step into the lobby of any high rise office building and you'll see a series of people press the elevator's illuminated, obviously-pressed "up" button again, and again. Some of these elevator-button-light-skeptics press it only once, while others insist on applying their own, special "triple-knuckle poke." Germophobes, such as yours truly, might use an elbow or send a kid to remind an already-lit elevator button that I'm waiting. Still other people have faith in the button's light so they resist. But look at their faces and you'll see the same burning desire we all share -to press the button just once more to hurry it up already.

I try not to be a redundant-elevator-button-presser but sometimes it's irresistible. When I succumb, my reason isn't unique: While worming my way through the previous-button-pushers, I think, "It can't hurt to make sure the button has been pressed. Maybe all these people failed to press it hard enough or for enough time. The button's light might be faulty."

Inevitably, new arrivals continue to press the lit elevator button after I do. They think theirs is the magic press that causes the elevator to rush down to the lobby and open.

Watching an impatient person pummel a mouse button to hurry a computer shows percussive begging in the most amusing way. More than once I've been entertained by a client that calls me in to complain of a slow computer. When I ask for a demo of the problem, they click an icon. Before the program can load, they click another icon, and then add some rapid-fire mouse clicks all over the screen to emphasize how unresponsive the computer is. They seem oblivious to the hourglass their mouse pointer has become. The real entertainment begins moments later when six program windows pop open, a mysterious document prints for "no reason" and a dialog box pops up saying "Are you sure you want to delete?" Then the person looks at me with raised eyebrows and points to the screen as if to say, "See? Slow."

Unlike an elevator or traffic signal, computers actually give clear hints that your button command was received. The muffled tapping sound coming from the computer is the hard drive racing to load the program you requested. The pointer that has become an hourglass is the equivalent of "Hold on a second, I'm working on it." Extra clicks don't speed it up and may launch a command you don't intend to give.

So next time you are tempted to "finger-flog" your mouse button because you feel your computer isn't "hurrying" fast enough for you, take a few breaths and wait a minute. Say aloud, "I will not percussively beg because it does no good."

But if nothing happens for 60 seconds, click your mouse button harder. Then click it 10 more times as fast as you can to show you're serious. Still nothing? Give your monitor a firm smack on the side.* That ought to hurry it up.

*Not really.

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