In the classic science fiction story “The Marching Morons” by American writer Cyril M. Kornbluth, the world hundreds of years in the future is a reverse-eugenics nightmare. Between centuries of intelligent people not having children (perhaps to address climate change?) and excessive breeding by fools and dolts, the typical member of the public has an IQ of around 45, while an elite few who have IQs of 100 or more work around the clock to save the world, and the morons, from chaos. One of their tricks is to manufacture cars that make lots of noise and create the illusion of high speeds to fool the morons, who are (as we all know) wretched drivers. In truth, the cars crawl along more slowly than tricycles.
I thought of this when reader and frequent commentator here Charles Green noted in his excellent newsletter that those buttons at pedestrian crosswalks in major cities are an intentional fraud on the public, a placebo to keep us calm and feeling in control when we are not. Charles link was to my old hometown paper, the Boston Globe, but it’s behind a paywall. Never mind, though: newspapers have periodically been noting this phenomenon for years. They apparently think it is amusing. It isn’t.
The New York Times reported in 2004 that the city deactivated most of the pedestrian buttons long ago with the advent of computer-controlled traffic signals. Today there are 120 working signals; about 500 were removed during major construction projects. But it was estimated that it would cost $1 million to dismantle the rest of non-functioning mechanisms, over a thousand of them, so city officials decided to keep them in place. And people keep pushing them. After all, sometimes, by sheer luck, the light changes soon after the button has been pushed. It works!
Tribal rains dances “work” the same way.
ABC News reported in 2010 that it found only one functioning crosswalk button in a survey of signals in Austin, Texas.; Gainesville, Florida, and Syracuse, New York. Other studies have turned up similar results in dozens of other cities. To be clear, presenting a button to pedestrians that is represented as a legitimate tool to cross the street when in fact it does nothing is a lie. It is an intentional falsehood, designed to deceive.
It isn’t just the crosswalk buttons, ether. The door-close button on elevators are also fake, and have been for two decades. Working close-elevator door buttons disappeared after the enactment of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990. The legislation required that elevator doors remain open long enough for anyone who uses crutches, a cane or a wheelchair to get on board. The buttons are still on most elevators, though. They can still be operated by firefighters and maintenance workers who have the proper keys or codes.
You know: by the non-morons.
In its article about the fake buttons in 2016, the New York Times quoted John Kounios, a psychology professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia, who said that there was no harm in the “white lie” that these buttons represent. “A perceived lack of control is associated with depression, so perhaps this is mildly therapeutic.”
In other words, it is best for those in control to lie to the public so it doesn’t know how little control it has, and our scholarly elite are squarely on the side of our more intelligent masters.
Let me succinctly state the Ethics Alarms position on the viral spread of the fake button phenomenon. It represents a slow-frog boil from democracy into complacent totalitarianism. I do not accept being lied to “for my own good.” These are not “white lies.” The only morons are those who allow the government and others with power to mislead and deceive us for their own convenience, as well as those who tolerate a complicit journalism establishment that periodically spills the beans using a tone that says, “Isn’t this fun? It’s okay! It’s really okay. Just relax, and forget about it. You’re in good hands. Trust. All is well.”
To hell with that.
I don’t think manipulation is fun, or being lied to, or being assured that being lied to is good for me. Responsible members of a democracy have a duty to reject the manipulators as loudly and forcefully as possible.
Pointer: Charles Green