About Rachel Plotnick, Ph.D.: Rachel Plotnick is Associate Professor of Cinema and Media Studies in the Media School at Indiana University Bloomington. Blending media history with critical and cultural perspectives on technology, Dr. Plotnick’s work probes the social and political importance of human-machine interfaces like buttons and screens.

Dr. Plotnick’s first book, Power Button: A History of Pleasure, Panic and the Politics of Pushing, was published by MIT Press in 2018. She has also published articles in leading media studies journals including Critical Studies in Media Communication and New Media & Society. Her latest work, including her recent piece in Convergence, “You Must Touch It: Touchscreen Hygiene and the Sin of the Smudge” examines the cultural importance of unclean and wet media. Dr. Plotnick continues this line of research in her forthcoming book with MIT, tentatively titled License to Spill: Where Dry Devices Meet Liquid Lives.

Prior to joining the faculty at Indiana University, Dr. Plotnick was faculty in the Department of Communication at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte. During her time there, her research was recognized with the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) Life Members Award in Electrical History, administered by the Society for the History of Technology. Dr. Plotnick received her Ph.D. in Media, Technology, and Society from Northwestern University, her M.A. in Communication, Culture, and Technology from Georgetown University, and her B.A. from Indiana University in English and Journalism.

Interview Questions

[MastersinCommunications.com] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you first become interested in media and technology studies, and, in particular, in bringing critical/cultural perspectives on media into conversation with media history to explore human-machine interaction?

[Dr. Rachel Plotnick] I received my Master’s from Georgetown University, where I completed the program in Communication, Culture and Technology. That was a very interdisciplinary, two-year program. Some students wanted to go into industry jobs and other people wanted to continue on in academia.

At that time, I became really interested in online illness narratives, especially how people were using the internet to tell their stories about cancer in a humorous way. I wrote my master’s thesis about that. That was a really fun project, and it made me realize that I wanted to keep writing about technology and the relationships between technology and society. I was not necessarily sure what I wanted to do or who I wanted to be, other than I felt like I wanted to keep thinking about these questions and doing writing and research.

I started in the Ph.D. program at Northwestern University in Media, Technology and Society in 2008. That was a very interdisciplinary place where some people were doing human computer interaction, other people were interested in history, and other people were doing science and technology studies and critical / cultural studies. I think both my Master’s and Ph.D. graduate environments really shaped my perspective on how I thought about technology, because I was working in places where there were a rich variety of theories, methods, and approaches to thinking about technology.

I never saw myself as a historian. That was not my end goal or even something that I was really familiar with, but I started working with Jennifer Light at Northwestern, and she became my advisor. I think of her as a “historian of technology” proper. She had training in that, and I was very inspired by her. I wanted to understand how to ask big questions about technology, and I noticed that a lot of people were focusing very much on the moment and thinking about new technologies and digital technologies. I wanted to make sense of the broader landscape, and I realized that meant looking back to the past to really see what the past had to say to the present and how they spoke to each other. That is when I started doing historical work.

At the same time, I was always motivated by critical questions surrounding gender, race, sexuality, class, and ability. Those always underpin my work and were what motivated me to ask some of those big questions in the first place. Ultimately, it seemed like a natural thing to do — to combine history with a more critical/cultural approach.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Much of your research attends to the cultural histories of interfaces — technologies like screens and buttons that mediate the relation between users and machines. Could you tell us a bit more about what motivated your interest in these particular types of technologies, and what cultural history helps capture about their social and political significance?

[Dr. Rachel Plotnick] This was another area where I did not necessarily see myself, at first, as being an interfaces person. I do not even know that I was able to label that as what I was doing for a long time. I was sitting in Pablo Boczkowski’s class when I was in graduate school, and we were talking about different projects that we might pitch. I became very interested in the television remote. I thought, “Hey, why hasn’t anyone written a really good history of the television remote?”

It seemed to me those buttons and that remote mediate so many different social relations that happen in people’s households. I was also very inspired by Roger Silverstone’s work on domestication and the way that technologies become embedded in the habits and practices of our daily lives. I was thinking about all of that, and I realized that buttons themselves became this incredible mediating technology across so many different devices. We can think about control or power at a distance, or how we carry out the things that we do all the time. So much was crystallized in that little action of pushing of a button.

The more deeply I looked into this question I began to see the development of the button as a crux moment. I began writing about this in 2009 or 2010, and a lot of people were talking about the death of the button at the time and saying that we were losing buttons because we were beginning to use touchscreens more and more. A lot of smartphone companies were removing physical buttons from the designs of their devices. I wondered where this idea of pushing a button came from in the first place and how we might trace a kind of origin story about that particular interface.

Later, I began to realize that the concept of interface was such a generative one to think about how humans and machines relate to one another. It is that constitutive glue that holds everything together. I could use buttons to think across a range of devices and technologies and still keep these critical questions about power and access at the forefront. It became a really fun but also daunting way to talk about a lot of the things that interested me about technology.

In terms of digital technologies, I think the death of the button was very much overblown. It is actually interesting to see how, if anything, the pendulum has swung back in the direction of putting buttons back onto things. People have realized not everything is meant to be done by touchscreen, especially in cars. A lot of those interfaces became touchscreens and then people realized this is not very accessible, especially when you are trying to keep your eyes on the road. There have been a lot of important pieces written about disability and touchscreens, and it took a long time for accessibility to really be available there.

Physical buttons were also a lot better for people who play video games. Even after all the advances we have made, at the end of the day people still want a physical controller with buttons on them. To me it seems like the button is a very enduring technology. Even as we get better voice technologies and access to other kinds of interfaces, I do not really see buttons going away because people like the kind of binary-ness of buttons. I think they like their choices being constrained to this narrow thing, and I also think that physical tactility is still really desirable. People like to touch things and have things touch them back. They enjoy that sense of force and interaction with a device. It gives a feeling of agency and control.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Your first book is Power Button: A History of Pleasure, Panic and the Politics of Pushing. Would you introduce us to your argument that the button introduces the possibility of “digital command” and the ambivalent association of buttons with panic and pleasure you map throughout the book?

[Dr. Rachel Plotnick] As I began to look at a wealth of examples, it was very difficult to even figure out where to start when I was studying buttons. They are littered across so many different devices. As I mentioned, I began to see this recurring theme, and that theme really had to do with power. What I saw was that, in the button, we have physical power but also the power that mediates different kinds of relationships.

The idea of turning something on and off and how a button animates electricity is very important at the turn of the 20th century in the context of electrification and industrialization. The thing that I saw repeat over and over again is that the button routinely served to separate the haves and the have nots. It was all about who had the privilege of pushing a button. In so many contexts it was the employer who got to push a button and instruct their worker to come to do their bidding, or it was the wealthy homeowner who got to push the button that would ring the bell and call the servant. It was the person who got to push the button and instantly have something pop out of a vending machine, and it seemed like magic.

In all of these cases, the concept of “digital command” [digital in the sense of a binary on/off function, and digital in the sense of being enabled by the “digits” of human fingers] made sense to me, because it exemplified this feeling of magic that I think is associated with button pushing. We do not often understand what happens behind the button. Much of the time, that is by design because what is behind it is complicated, or because the people who created it do not want us to understand what is behind it, or because it covers up all of these messy social relations. I found people using buttons in a variety of ways where it was really about wielding some kind of control over someone or something, whether that was taming electricity or taming people to do your bidding.

I very much see buttons as a technology of power. Now, as you mentioned, in the title of the book there is both pleasure and panic. On the one hand, we can see buttons as mediating a kind of pleasure because you push it, and you get what you want, and that can be very gratifying. Buttons became quickly associated with instant gratification. That gratification can be physical, sexual, or just getting the thing you want: light, chocolate, a cigarette, whatever it might be.

On the other hand, there is a panic that quickly became associated with the button because of things like the electric death penalty and nuclear war. We get the idea that pushing a button could blow up the world or do something harmful that you have no way to revoke. This is the trigger effect of pushing the button. In both of those cases, again, the button consolidates power within the hands of the pusher. It seemed like this one push could do so much. That was both a very exciting and a very threatening concept at that moment in time.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Are there particular insights from this book that seem most prescient to understanding our contemporary cultural context? Does the push-button, for example, retain a valuable role in our current cultural anxieties surrounding nuclear war, or does the “taking for granted” of buttons and electricity you examine in the chapter “Push for Your Pleasure” help shed light on certain aspects of the present climate crisis?

[Dr. Rachel Plotnick] Reflecting back on the book, I remain amazed at the relevance of what was happening around 1900 to 1920 to the present moment. It surprises me the extent to which we still have dual ideas about pleasure and panic associated with pushing buttons. I remember when Donald Trump was running for office, there was a lot of talk along the lines of, “He’s going to be the one with his finger on the nuclear button. Do we want to give him that power?”

Of course, there is no such thing as a nuclear button, in the sense that people were thinking about it. The only button he had access to was to get someone to bring a Diet Coke to his office. Even this, though, is very much what I was talking about 100 years earlier, when it was all about someone powerful sitting behind a desk and getting to push a button to make someone do their bidding.

Another interesting resonance with the present moment is looking at buttons within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. I think it has been really fascinating to see the way we have tried to take away buttons due to fears of contagion and make everything touchless. At the end of the day, I think we see digital command as mediating the privileged and the marginalized. Those of us who are privileged could stay at home and push all our buttons to order our products from Amazon and Instacart and get anything we want delivered to our door.

That is not magic. There were people who had to put themselves at risk and who had to be out on the streets and around other people to do our bidding to show up at our doors. I think buttons still continue to mediate these power relationships in that it seems like magic to just be able to get what you want in this digital sense, when in fact there are always people who are disadvantaged or marginalized through these kinds of power interactions.

[MastersinCommunications.com] In your recent article, “Tethered Women, Mobile Men: Gendered Mobilities of Typewriting,” you examine the gendered politics surrounding the innovations of the portable typewriter. Could you discuss how the history of portable typewriting helps expand or nuance our understanding of the gendered politics of labor, specifically as it pertains to mobility?

[Dr. Rachel Plotnick] I did some work on typewriters when I was thinking about buttons because keys and buttons are intimately related. That project was thinking about differential mobilities and the way technology is deployed in ways that advantage or disadvantage certain populations. One of the things that I noticed that was interesting in the 20th century around typewriting was that some people had to be tethered to their desks or to physical space with these big, clunky typewriters that they couldn’t carry around. Other people were imagined as being the mobile jet setters who could take their typewriters with them wherever they went. They were encouraged to do mobile work.

This was clearly a gendered stratification, where men were encouraged to do the traveling and be mobile with their typewriters, and women were encouraged to stay at their desks and in offices and do housework or do office work. It became a matter of thinking about who gets to do the work and how mobility is leveraged in different ways for different populations. I saw lots of advertisements where typewriters were being advertised to men who were doctors or journalists, travelers or adventurers. Women, in contrast, were encouraged to set up their little home office so that they could do their paperwork from the safety of their desk.

I think mobility becomes a really interesting way that we can also think about power. Even though a portable typewriter, in theory, is a technology that is available to everybody, often the way we talk about technologies or imagine the possible users of those devices is leveraged in a way that is very unequal. The feminist geographer Doreen Massey writes about the idea of differential mobilities. We can think about that in a variety of contexts. Mobility gives us certain rights and privileges to move, rather than having to be stationary or tethered to a single place. The portable typewriter came to negotiate the gendered differences between public and private space and how people could move through those spaces.

[MastersinCommunications.com] In your most recent work, you turn your attention to “unclean media” and “media wetness” to probe the messy embodiment of our relationships with media. Would you discuss this thread of your research, which you pursue in publications like “The Unclean Human-Machine Interface” and “Sticky Fingers and Smudged Sound: Vinyl Records and the Mess of Media Hygiene”?

[Dr. Rachel Plotnick] My work has developed to engage questions of cleanliness and dirtiness as they relate to media. While, on its face, that might seem like a drastically different topic than buttons, I do think they are very intimately related because they still both have to do with human-machine relationships. They have to deal with our bodies and how our bodies relate to technologies in various ways. I see button pushing and cleaning, maintaining, grooming, and repairing technologies as always having to do with our embodied relationships to technology.

I am still very interested in questions of everyday life and how media technologies fold into those habits and experiences that we have as we are going about our days. Perhaps because I have kids and things are messy all the time, I started to notice that cleanliness is a persistent topic when we talk about media of various kinds. We can think of the COVID-19 pandemic as fueling those questions, but I was writing about this before that happened, so that has only increased my interest.

Initially I started thinking about older physical media that requires a lot of protection and cleanliness and care. You mentioned my work about the vinyl record, which is a really good example of that. I studied how hobbyists developed this almost scientific approach to cleaning their records because it would give them the best sound. They became obsessed with the right cleaning products and how to maintain those devices. This theme of cleanliness continues all the way up to the present moment with how we care for our smartphones. We wipe the smudges off of those screens and tablets, we protect our devices in cases, or we do not and then suffer the consequences.

This led me to my current book project, which is called License to Spill: Where Dry Devices Meet Liquid Lives. I realized that one theme that was present across all of the cleanliness topics that I was researching had to do with this issue of wetness and how we negotiate wetness. That might be anything from the oil in our fingers or the saliva that comes out of our mouths, wanting to take your phone and go swimming, dropping your phone in the toilet, spilling your drink on your laptop, sweating when you are wearing your VR headset. It just turns out that the world is a really wet, messy place.

I thought that wetness is this really interesting way to think about technology across devices, people, and different kinds of environments. It becomes another kind of connective tissue, similar to buttons, where we can begin to understand patterns of behavior across devices and across different moments in time.

The project is also thinking about mobility: how we move with different devices from place to place. Mobility introduces another layer of messiness. Think about the computer on your desk versus the laptop that you carry in your bag, take to the airport, use in the hotel, and bring to the beach. It also exposes a lot of questions about durability and care. It leads us to think about who gets durable technologies, how those are marketed to different populations, how we think about accidents and panic and the importance of these devices in our daily lives, and how we navigate and negotiate the challenges of fragility.

I am really excited about the project because I think it just brings a lot of themes to the fore that have not been explored very much in media studies, but it also connects to a lot of conversations that have been happening for a really long time. One of the things that I have noticed is that protection is a privilege, and protection is only afforded to certain populations. For one, if you want your device to be protected, you either need to pay for certain accessories or for an extended warranty. You need to have the luxury of time, such that you do not have to multitask and mix different activities together. I am thinking about the ways that the pandemic necessitated that many of us work from home. We are combining our eating and drinking with our work.

I think the people who are the most rushed, the most panicked, the most tired, the busiest, are also the ones who make the most mess. There are not a lot of protections or forgiveness in place for messiness in a society that pushes us to do so much all the time. There are different privileges associated with who gets to get wet and messy and who does not. I am currently working on a chapter about bathrooms, and one of the interesting things that I have seen is that having a phone by your bathtub was considered frivolous or a luxury, but it was also about reclaiming your time and being the kind of person who has enough access to time that you could just enjoy that luxury of soaking and reading your book or talking on the phone or doing whatever you want. I think that there are kinds of privileges there that I want to tease out about how certain people are granted access to these wet spaces.

Another place we see this pop up is in terms of cameras and luxury watches. You might be able to afford a Rolex or a fancy underwater camera, but for many people who cannot afford such things that becomes a luxury that is incompatible with the messiness of daily life. I think durability becomes associated with ruggedness, with masculinity, and with the privileges associated with that, while domestic life is treated as an accident, a mess, or a problem to be repaired.

[MastersinCommunications.com] How does the popularization of digital technology play into the clean/dirty, wet/dry paradigm that you are exploring?

[Dr. Rachel Plotnick] We think of the digital as being sanitized in ways that are both good and bad. Many people talk about reading a physical newspaper as being a nostalgic thing, because it is very tactile. The ink might come off on you, and you are engaging with the media in a very material, embodied way. In contrast, the e-reader or the screen is described as being very sanitized and clean. You do not get up close and touch it. The touchscreen is this sanitized, flat interface. It does not give anything back to you.

I think there is kind of a cleanliness associated with the digital, but on the other hand, the digital is so messy in a variety of ways. I am hoping to continue to explore that. We talk about “dirty data.” We talk about server farms, clean energy versus dirty energy, and how the digital is polluting the planet. There are all these kinds of ways in which dirtiness is still very much inherent to the digital.

The wetness question also exposes a discomfort that we have around where media should and should not go in our daily lives. In many ways, we do not want media to go into the wet places. It is too much, and we want to kind of put up barriers and say, “These spaces are separate. Those are human spaces, but they’re not media technology spaces.” It is often frowned upon if you bring your device into the bathroom or eat lunch at your desk. We have social norms about bringing your phone to the table. I think wetness becomes a kind of protective boundary as well. We do not want our devices to get dirty to prevent the digital from leaking into all these various spaces, not just because we are protecting our technology.

Wet technology gets to be everywhere. I have noticed a lot of the more recent ads from Apple, Samsung, and other companies talk about being “lifeproof.” Now you can take your phone literally anywhere. It can come with you to the tub, the beach, and the bedroom. You do not have to be afraid to get it wet. Now there truly are no spaces where technology cannot be. This leads me to hypothesize that fragility might be a form of resistance.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have advice you would give to students interested in media and technology studies, or the cultural history of media more specifically, who are considering pursuing a graduate degree in communication?

[Dr. Rachel Plotnick] I think it’s a really interesting time to be studying media. In general, my advice to grad students is always to think outside the box and look in corners where a lot of people are not looking. Something I have emphasized in my career is, while we may have a huge cluster of people over in this one corner studying these particular things, if we approach our projects from a really different angle it might expose facets of media technology that are right in front of us but remain underexplored.

There is a lot of potential to make a great career and to do a lot of interesting thinking around more unconventional kinds of topics. I hope that my work points in the direction of unconventional paths forward. I think the field has room to embody many different kinds of perspectives. We might be attracted to the shiny, the new, the “of the moment,” and we do need people who are doing that kind of work. Still, asking these bigger questions about how we got to where we are is really critical. I am excited to see a lot of young scholars asking those questions, and would encourage that long-term, historical, critical / cultural thinking, which I think is really generative for where our field is heading.

Thank you, Dr. Plotnick, for discussing your fascinating research on media history, user interfaces, and wet and dirty media!


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About the Author: Ben Clancy (they/them) is a critical scholar and creative living in Chicago with their partner, child, and other wildlife. They are a PhD candidate at UNC Chapel Hill in the Department of Communication, where their research focuses on the politics of communicative and artistic technologies. Ben has an M.A. from Texas State University, has worked as a research fellow for the Center for Technology Information and Public Life at UNC, and is an alum of the Vermont Studio Center residency in poetry writing.

Please note: Our interview series aims to represent the diverse research being pursued by scholars in the field of communication, which is often socially and politically engaged. As a result, all readers may not agree with the views and opinions expressed in this interview, which are independent of the views of MastersinCommunications.com, its parent company, partners, and affiliates.