On New Year’s Day, Kim Jong-un addressed North Korea on his state-sponsored TV station with a new boast: The country had finished amassing its nuclear arsenal, and he even has a shiny new “nuclear button” on his desk, ready to go.
This provoked an entirely predictable response from Tweet-button-happy US president Donald Trump: “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his!”
The big red button as a symbol of willy-nilly destruction—and the irresistible yet irrational allure we feel to push the damn thing—is not new. In fact, the trope predates the nuclear era entirely.
But does the absurd imagery and puerile one-upmanship make the situation any less dangerous? This foreign policy crisis is being shaped by the particular psychology of the digital age: We are all button-pushing addicts now.
“You don’t want a nuclear weapon that can be set off by a cat. Because you know that, sooner or later, a cat would set it off. Such is the way of cats.”
1896:A Parisian newspaper publishes a satirical account of Thomas Edison destroying London by pressing “button No. 4.”
1910s: Doomsday buttons start to appear in the work of sci-fi authors like H.G. Wells.
1932: The Weekly Irish Times writes that atomic energy will lead to “a time when, by the pressing of a button or turning of a switch, it will be possible for somebody to explode the whole world like a penny balloon.”
1945: Life magazine warns of “devastating push-button battles” in the nuclear age.
1964: US president Lyndon Johnson says a leader must “do anything that is honorable to avoid pulling that trigger, mashing that button that will blow up the world.”
1965: IBM’s System/360 Model 65 mainframe has an “emergency pull”—a red button that immediately turns off power to the entire system.
1968: US president Richard Nixon touts his “madman theory,” saying he wants North Vietnam to believe he cannot be restrained when angry and “has his hand on the nuclear button.”
2009:US secretary of state Hillary Clinton gives her Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov a comically large red button to symbolize a “reset” in relations. She gets the translation wrong, using the Russian word for “overcharged.”
2016:“Trump shouldn’t have his finger on the button, or his hands on our economy,” Clinton says on the campaign trail.
There's a button for that
A big red button that can launch a nuclear attack does not exist, for good reason. But they are useful for averting a disaster, rather than creating one.
Nuclear reactors have a failsafe button, often red, known as a “SCRAM” switch, which inserts control rods into the core to halt a runaway nuclear reaction. The acronym stands for “safety control rod axe man,” which was supposedly coined by Enrico Fermi when the world’s first nuclear reactor was built at the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field. (Yes, there was literally a guy with an axe standing by; we wrote about that in a previous Quartz Obsession.)
Meanwhile, Alphabet’s DeepMind unit—which has developed AIs capable of learning on their own and beating humans at board games—is also nervous about creating adverse consequences. In a recent research paper, it warned that “reinforcement learning agents interacting with a complex environment like the real world are unlikely to behave optimally all the time,” and said it “may be necessary for a human operator to press the big red button to prevent the agent from continuing a harmful sequence of actions.”
To authorize a strike, the president has to provide an authentication code that he carries on a laminated card nicknamed “the biscuit.” He does not need approval from anyone else. The Pentagon then issues the codes needed to unlock the missiles into a message about the length of a tweet, which is broadcast to launch crews. It would take only about five minutes to launch land missiles and 15 to launch missiles from a submarine.
“People think launching is as simple as pressing a red button, but it’s much more complicated,” 1st Lt. Pamela Blanco-Coca, 319th Missile Squadron missile combat crew commander, explains on the US Air Force website.
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“If ever the President wanted to fire nuclear weapons, the only way he could do so would be for him first, with his own hands, to kill one human being. The President says, ‘George, I’m sorry but tens of millions must die.’ He has to look at someone and realize what death is—what an innocent death is. Blood on the White House carpet. It’s reality brought home.”
The Pentagon thinks it’s a terrible idea: “Having to kill someone would distort the President’s judgment. He might never push the button.”
THE (SORTA) GOOD NEWS
Kim Jong-un doesn’t have a button either
Experts say that North Korea’s long-range liquid-powered missiles—the ones that could potentially reach the United States—cannot be fired at a moment’s notice. Previous tests have required several hours to fuel up the ICBMs, though short-range missiles using solid fuel could be prepared more quickly.
“We willingly push any and every button because we hope that it provides a squirt of dopamine for pleasure,” psychologist and California State University professor Larry Rosen tells Gizmodo. “Or at least, [it] reduces the cortisol that is making us anxious—until we see what pressing it means.”
You’ve probably read something about the reasons social media, video games, and even email are so addictive: We’re conditioned to seek rewards. Getting one (a thumbs-up, a like, or a new edition of the Quartz Obsession) activates pathways in our brain that make us crave more. Our phones and computers are full of buttons, the mechanism by which we receive our little rewards.
A nuclear button, even a proverbial one, is different. But as pop culture tropes can tell you, that doesn’t mean we don’t feel compelled to push them. “In psychology, this can be explained by reactance theory, which says that if our freedom of choice is threatened, we feel compelled to protect that freedom, making us want the taboo thing even more,” Gizmodo’s Bryan Lufkin writes.
In yesterday’s poll about time zones, 62% of you said “keep ’em!” Also, thanks to readers Chris and Jayaker who pointed out a silly mistake we made : “Amarillo and Huntsville are far apart, but on the same (Central) time zone, not the inverse.”