When I was growing up in New Jersey, I would dream of one day driving a car and being able to go wherever I wanted. I knew that it would be years before I would actually be able to steer and control an actual car but there was a way in which I could exert some kind of power over not just one car but many cars at once — the crosswalk button at most intersections.
Pressing that button gave me a dramatic injection of power and, as I have now learned, a dose of unwitting, medicinal, gullibility.


I have only recently learned, thanks to the goodness of reddit and The New York Times, that many crosswalk buttons — nearly 2,500 of them — do absolutely nothing when you push them. The lights are automated and have smart technologies that know when cars are coming and when they are not coming and just know when to let either side walk.

For me as a Shomer Shabbos Jew this couldn’t be any better news. This is because when I am walking somewhere on Shabbos I have sometimes worried about whether or not I would have to wait awhile at an intersection for someone to approach it and push the walk button. For the four years I was living in Seattle it was a weekly concern but now I wonder how many of those buttons were actually connected.

This leads me to wonder about how many other things in our life are like this. What other buttons are sitting there, waiting for you to push them but that do nothing at all? Every day when I get in the elevator in the office building where I work, I hit the “close door” button and think that it is the reason that the door is actually closing — but does the button make the doors close?

The next time you fiddle around with the thermostat in your office, think again — it may be doing absolutely nothing. The funny thing about it is that it has a tremendous psychological effect — it relaxes people who otherwise would complain about the temperature. Give people the “power” to change the temperature and they won’t complain about it any longer.

On a more humorous note, the software company where I work puts a lot of placeholder buttons into the software. As a person who works in technical support, I can tell you that each time a placeholder button is implemented, it is followed by about two or three hundred phone calls over the weeks that follow that ask why those buttons do nothing — or what they are doing wrong that the buttons are doing nothing.

Maybe they just don’t realize that the buttons are supposed to do nothing.

2 Comments

  1. Funny stuff, Gordon!
    I know in Jersey City there are at least a few pedestrian crosswalk buttons that DO work as expected because the default is to keep the flow of traffic moving and there’s no reason to slow it down unless there’s someone who needs to walk across the street. The second you press the button to walk, the light changes to stop the traffic.
    Why would a software company purposefully insert buttons that don’t do anything into their released software? Seems like you’re asking for tech support trouble!

  2. The company is sort of funny that way. The developers get these great ideas and put the buttons there in updates, thinking that a week or two later they will attach something to it. Then they get other ideas and things fall by the wayside. 😮 They eventually get implemented but yes – until then it’s support fun!