Hollywood and the Illusion of Control

We've put all sorts of mechanisms in place to convince us we're in charge. Few of them ever work.

A few days ago, I had a surprise. I discovered that the “close the door” buttons in elevators are designed not to function.

“Pressing the door-close button on an elevator might make you feel better,” the New York Times noted, “but it will do nothing to hasten your trip. Karen W. Penafiel, executive director of National Elevator Industry Inc., a trade group, said the close-door feature faded into obsolescence a few years 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 wheelchair to get on board.”

It turns out elevator buttons aren’t alone in serving as placebos for our harried lives. Office thermostats, too, are more often decorative than operational. Citing an article in The Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration News, the Times quoted one knowledgeable man who observed that people “felt better” when they believed they could control the level of heat. “This cut down the number of service calls by over 75 percent,” he said.

All this would be amusing — and almost satirical — if it weren’t somehow disconcerting. I’ve been pumping that thermostat in my icy office for years, trying to convince myself the place was warming up, and I’ve been toggling the elevator buttons for a virtual lifetime, hoping against hope I could shave a few seconds off my day.

Buttons, switches and toggles are meant to give us a sense of security, to instill an impression that life is ordered and organized. When we find they don’t work — worse, when we’re fooled into believing they do — it makes us wonder how many other fake buttons we’ve been poking, how many times we’ve mistaken a fraudulent one for the real thing.

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Hollywood is full of buttons. There’s the button you press for your assistant, imagining he or she has no life of his own. There’s the button to turn on your car, thinking it will cocoon you from the unwashed masses on the other side of the windshield. There’s the button on your computer, the button on your TV, the button on your smart phone.

We depend on these buttons, not just to access the outside world, but to comfort the world we keep hidden inside us. Each time we press one and get a response, a little burst of dopamine drips into our brain, warming our hearts even as it teaches us to search for more buttons.

Is there anything more disconcerting than their failure to work? We all know that sinking sensation when we power up our phones and nothing comes on. There’s a sudden sense of dread, a horror at being left out, at the yawning hours of emptiness that may stretch ahead, during which we can’t reach others and — even worse — they can’t reach us. People might miss us or, perish the thought, not miss us at all.

Every time I land in some distant place and switch on my iPhone, a shudder of anxiety ripples through me at the thought I might be cut loose from family and friends, bosses and colleagues — that I’ll be disconnected from the texts and the tweets and the emails and emojis that are the rice bowls of modern life.

Our phone is more than a link to the web; it’s an umbilical cord that tethers us to the mother ship. People used to fear that a nuclear button might be switched on; now they live in terror that their smartphone will be switched off.

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But buttons are only part of the illusion of control. Throughout the industry, whole superstructures have been created to convince us of we’re in charge of our lives, when we patently aren’t.

Expense accounts, luxury cars, access to the corporate plane, tickets to the Lakers, private screening rooms, five-star hotels — each is designed to reassure us of our place on the ladder, rather than make us wonder how solid the ladder is to begin with.

Other things convey the notion of control in an environment where there is none. Top directors are promised final cut, when everyone knows they’ll need full studio approval if they want their films to be released. Power lists celebrate those who’ve made it to the upper-most echelon, carefully avoiding those who've fallen off altogether. Restaurants give A-listers the best tables, until they’re no longer on the A-list, when they’re lucky to get a table at all.

Those few who are truly in control don’t need to worry about tables. I’ve never seen any of the genuine moguls — the Rupert Murdochs, the Sumner Redstones and the Ted Turners — focus on where they were sitting. They don't need to fuss about control, because they know they have it.

But most of us need the illusion just as much as reality. In a town built around the image, image and reality are inseparable. We need to hold on to all the buttons we can get. And when we’ve run out of real ones, the fake ones will do.

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