Lying To Us To Make Us Feel Better: Those Fake Crosswalk Buttons

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


75 thoughts on “Lying To Us To Make Us Feel Better: Those Fake Crosswalk Buttons

  1. Fair enough Steve.
    I certainly do admit there are deplorables out there; or perhaps more often people are just ….: “as sharp as a hundred pounds of wet leather.” to quote Foghorn Leghorn.

    A similar situation to those you describe happens every time a plane lands. Everyone jumps up and stands in the isle (I have done this when I twitched a nerve in my back and just couldn’t bear to sit any longer btw) then as soon as the doors open they all rush to the bag pickup and stand so close that no one can see their bag, and you have to elbow your way through when you do spot it.

    I don’t think this sort of thing is unethical, just thick.

    The fact is, as you have just shown in your reply, most of us bumble through life wrapped up in our own little world and don’t think things through as we ought. I, obviously, didn’t think of some of the situations you mentioned before I flapped my fingers on the keyboard!

        • If today’s “organized touchiness” climate had existed in Leghorn’s heyday, he’d have been shouted down as an EVIL Southern White Bigot/Deplorable/Racist/Supremacist.

          I’m not sure if Miss Prissy would’ve been lauded as a “you go grrl” type or as a stereotyped X-Chromosomal Unit unable to find fulfillment without a husband, the insidiously sinister product of the EVIL White Male Patriarchy’s ongoing “War-on-Women.”

          To which I say:

  2. Reminds me of the time at work I found a bunch of weld defects that turned out to be caused by an operator using incorrect settings on their welder. I told the operator to use the correct settings he argued that it was fine. I could have argued endlessly with that guy about an objective fact but a quicker and more effective solution was to take advantage of a feature of the very modern power supply he was using to make these crappy welds. Since it was connected to the network I just logged into it, set the correct parameters and also set it to ignore the operator inputs, although the knobs still change the display they don’t do anything else. Monstrous I know, especially since I did that to every other power supply that I could. A few days later that operator had me look at one of his welds and said how it was perfect even though he was using his own settings. I couldn’t help but laugh at him.

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