Anne Jolis

Steve Jobs’s button phobia has shaped the modern world

It’s time for those of us with an irrational fear of touchscreens to have a say

Steve Jobs’s button phobia has shaped the modern world
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Koumpounophobia is the fear of buttons. Steve Jobs had it — or at least a strong aversion, which explained his affinity for touch-screens and turtlenecks. So do an estimated one of every 75,000 people alive today.

Your correspondent was only recently made aware of the phenomenon when a friend, K of Cambridge, requested that I refrain from wearing buttoned shirts in his presence. ‘A minor quirkiness with buttons,’ he confessed over email, while we were planning a rendezvous. ‘They make me very mildly uncomfortable.’

I turned straight to Google: ‘fear of buttons’. There it was: koumpounophobia, from the modern Greek koumpi (‘to button up’), with case studies, digital fora offering solidarity among sufferers, and adverts for hypnotists to address the matter.

‘Are you koumpounophobic?’ I wrote back.

K replied, ‘I had to look that up.’ He hadn’t known the term either, and had spent 30 years believing himself a lone freak.

‘I wouldn’t call it a phobia,’ he said, ‘but I don’t like to look at them, don’t like them touching my skin or knowing they’re even there. I don’t run away screaming but it gives me a general level of the creeps that I have to think about it to not let it bother me.’

Got it: not a phobia — just chronic dread at the thought or sensation of the things.

K has hated buttons since he can remember. As with most of his kind, metal fastenings are exempt; it’s plastic ones that are a problem. This means K and his fellow 0.001 per cent are fine with blue jeans and other trousers, only no collared Oxfords or — once upon a time — standard-issue keyboards, unless strictly necessary.

Formal treatments of koumpounophobia tend to focus on childhood traumas that may have precipitated it. In 2002 psychologists at Florida International University chronicled their work with a boy of nine whose antipathy dated back to when he was five, and spilled a large jar of buttons in his classroom.

Coraline Photo: The Kobal Collection/Focus Features
In 2009, as if to ensure a future supply of koumpounophobes, Laika produced an animated film based on Neil Gaiman’s book Coraline, wherein a little girl’s eyes are at risk of being replaced with sewn-on buttons. K is familiar, though he’s yet to bring himself to watch it. He remembers no button-associated childhood ordeals of his own. The head-shrinkers online, however, tell us that K’s condition may have been triggered by something as minor as a jittery adult, frightened that the toddlers might choke, screaming ‘Don’t touch that button!’

K’s reaction does not present as a subset of germophobia, which would be rational enough when you consider what gets smeared on lift buttons; nor of trypophobia, the aversion to clustered patterns of circular holes. The latter affliction, researchers posit at the University of Essex, may be rooted in the fact that for most of human existence, before drilling and crumpets, our eyes only met clustered circles while gawping at skin rashes, mould spores and other alarming occurrences. K is fine with dirt and spores; it’s just buttons he doesn’t like.

Buttons themselves are a relatively new-fangled thingamabob. They first showed up on Indus Valley finery a mere 4,000 years ago, and didn’t arrive in Europe until the 13th century. Evolutionary theories for such specific phobias might explain why there is not yet a name for the irrational fear of trapping one’s flesh in the teeth of a zipper: modern zippers didn’t come about until 1913. (The more recent zipper terror is, nonetheless, well documented on the amateur psychology symposia of the world wide web.)

Today’s koumpounophobes live easier lives than they have at any time in recent history — perhaps too easy. Thanks to the wonders of Velcro and Lycra, K has plenty of options. And, like the late Steve Jobs, he is a computer wizard — part of a professional class that did not exist three generations ago, and which considers him well-dressed if he’s found a clean pullover.

Jobs, meanwhile, did more to eradicate buttons in his short life than most koumpounophobes could have dreamed. In 2000 Apple marketed the button-free ‘Pro Mouse’. Design engineer Abraham Faraq this year told the Cult of Mac news site that it came about by accident, after Jobs strolled past a prototype whose button-parts had yet to be installed. ‘That’s genius,’ Jobs said, in Faraq’s telling, adding, ‘We don’t want to have any buttons.’ Faraq and his team then had to scramble to engineer circuitry for the button-free ‘design’. Some years later, when Jobs found his staffers working on what would eventually become Apple’s first multi-button mouse, Faraq recalls the CEO’s disgust: ‘What morons have you working on this project?’

Apple has always sold the elegance of Jobs’s visions, rather the neuroses behind them. Still, K’s plight calls to mind the old ‘I’m a Mac’ adverts, which contrasted a hip, T-shirt-clad Mac-man with the po-faced, buttoned-up archetype of Brand X computing. Twentysomething technorati now profess to be ‘Apple natives’, while older K types revel in reducing buttons to pixels and electrons.

And the rest of us? Having switched recently from a button-riddled Blackberry to a baby-smooth touch-screen, I find myself perpetually enraged, swiping and slapping at displays that appear and disappear as if by voodoo. K laughs, but I know I am not alone. I have to wonder if I don’t suffer from what we might call othóniafíphobia — irrational fear of gesture-sensing technology, from the modern Greek othóni afís (‘touch screen’).

I suspect, however, that the problem lies not in me, but in the subjugation of society by an elite 0.001 per cent. There is no such thing as an ‘Apple native’ or an ‘iPhone person’ — only the tyranny of the koumpounophobes.