Future Tense

Should This Thing Be Smart? Button Edition.

The traditional button says one thing at a time, and it says that one thing all the time. Not this button!

Digital button.
Photo illustration by Slate. Image by Beam Authentic.

Welcome to Should This Thing Be Smart? Each month, Justin Peters examines a smart object and try to determine whether there is any good reason for its existence—and how likely it is to be used for nefarious reasons. Previously on Should This Thing Be Smart?: the $60 smart fork, the $199 smart socks, and the $80 coffee mug.

Product: BEAM smart button by Beam Authentic

Price: $99 on beamauthentic.com.

Function: The Beam (styled “BEAM” by its maker) is a wearable, Bluetooth-connected smart button with an AMOLED display that can store and broadcast virtually any message you desire. Slogans, drawings, GIFs, inspirational sentiments, little rebus puzzles—it’s really up to you. Users can design their own message via the Beam Authentic app, share it with the broader Beam community, and interact with other users’ designs. Sounds sort of social network–ish for a humble button, right? Well, according to beamauthentic.com, the Beam isn’t just a button—it’s a “self-expression platform.” If you’ve been dying to express yourself via a $99 battery-powered button governed by a 5,000-word terms of service agreement, then the Beam might be the button for you.

The case for the smart button: The Beam is a very interesting button! It solves a problem that has vexed the button community since the geniuses behind “I Like Ike” first put slogan to pin: a button is an inherently limited communications medium. It only says one thing at a time, and it says that one thing all the time. Once a catchphrase is stamped onto a button, brother, it bears that catchphrase for life—which poses a problem for those of us who change our minds more often than we change our buttons.

Enter the Beam. The Beam is what you’d get if a whiteboard mated with one of those electronic photo frames and had a 2-inch-long child that you could pin to your backpack. It transcends the finite buttons of yore by making it easy for you, a person with something to say, to amend obsolete sentiments, create new ones, and toggle through stored button designs in order to select a message that is perfect for the moment you are in.

You can see how this could be a useful tool. The other day, for example, I saw a grim-faced woman walking down the street wearing, appropriately, a button that read “UGH.” But her button’s world-weary message might seem incongruous if, for example, she learned that she had just won $10 million. That’s the sort of news that would make anyone start dancing down the street and hugging complete strangers. Well, the Beam makes it easy to revise your button’s message from “UGH” to “HUG.” Thanks, Beam!

The Beam has progressive ambitions! Its official website encourages buyers to pledge that they will be compassionate, open-minded, nondiscriminatory members of the global community. Also, when you buy a Beam at beamauthentic.com, the company donates $3 from your purchase to one of three charities. Does your local button retailer donate three dollars to charity whenever you buy one of her buttons? No, she does not, in part because typical buttons cost less than $3.

The Beam is a boon for those of us who have more than one thing to say but are running out of lapel space in which to say it. There is such thing as messaging overload when it comes to old-school buttons. You can only wear so many buttons at once before the buttons lose their messaging power and people begin to mistake you for a waiter at Chili’s or a fluoridation alarmist. The Beam solves this problem by consolidating all of your sentiments into one high-tech button-shaped device.

The Beam allows you to have fun with friends! As a Beam owner, you can give friends or other trusted Beamers the ability to transmit a message or image of their choice directly to your device for all the world to see. This creates ample opportunity for some good-natured button-centric razzing, which, after all, is the foundation upon which lifelong friendships are built. Imagine the laughs when your buddy Frank—the one who loves Impractical Jokers and sometimes goes to open mics—beams the word “Butthead” directly to your Beam. Good one, Frank! Keep on honing that tight five!

The Beam can theoretically help your button concepts go viral. Independent button artisans working in traditional button media can create the world’s most attractive button and yet find no audience for their designs. Why is this? Because without the proper production and distribution—controlled, I assume, by America’s button oligarchs—your cool new button might as well not even exist, as far as the market is concerned. Curse you, oligarchs! Your time is growing short, and the instrument of your destruction has a name. That name is Beam.

The case against the smart button: The Beam feels inessential. Unlike other smart devices I have covered in this column, the Beam seems less an improvement on existing technology than an expensive and unnecessary variation on existing technology. In part I think this is because it is hard to improve on the good ol’ button. Have you ever heard anyone say a bad word about the button? Probably not. The traditional button is a nigh-perfect accessory that helps its users have fun and express themselves without breaking the bank. “You know what really ought to be disrupted? Buttons,” is another thing that you have never heard anyone say. The Beam is a solution in search of a problem.

The Beam is a button for the fickle and uncommitted. There is merit in being made to choose a slogan and stand by it for more than 12 seconds at a time. There are people in this world who are still wearing buttons that read “Vote for Pedro,” almost 15 years after Napoleon Dynamite was a thing, and it’s not just because they’ve forgotten it’s there. No, it is because donning a button used to mean something, dammit!

The Beam likely requires network effects to reach its full potential, which might aggravate early adopters seeking a full-fledged community experience that does not yet exist. While the official Beam website presents an inspiring vision of countless socially conscious millennials using their devices to express themselves and raise awareness for worthwhile causes, I have literally never seen a Beam out in the wild. True, I have not been looking very hard, but I feel like I’m pretty plugged in with the button community.

I take great issue with the notion of the Beam as a legitimate “platform for self-expression.” The best platforms—like, for example, a nonsmart button—are neutral and unmediated and cannot be easily commandeered by unseen third parties. I do not think that I would ever truly feel free expressing myself on an expensive digital button made by a company that “reserve[s] the right to modify or terminate the Service or your access to the Service for any reason, without notice, at any time, and without liability to you,” and that also reserves the right to “send you promotional messages and provide personalized content and information to you and others, which could include online ads or other forms of marketing.” Granted, I feel similarly about platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, but thanks to network effects I practically have no choice but to use them. Can’t say the same thing for you, Beam.

A button isn’t just a communications medium, it is an artifact. It links you to the time and place when you acquired it. Even if the message it bears grows obsolete, the connection to the past remains indelible. The Beam is connected to nothing except its own app and your phone’s Bluetooth signal. Like all battery-powered devices, your Beam will one day die; like all tech companies, Beam Authentic may one day disappear. When that happens, what will happen to your memories? Yes, I do have hoarder tendencies, why do you ask?

Beam is in partnership with Goop.

Security risk factor: I think it’s fair to worry about malicious actors hacking into your Beam and broadcasting slogans or designs that may be offensive to you or others. Can you imagine a world in which you, the well-intentioned Beam wearer, set off for, say, the Women’s March with the appropriate sentiments loaded up on your button—only to look down and find that some alt-right clown has caused everyone’s Beam to show Pepe the Frog? Yes, of course you can imagine that world. Probably the only reason it hasn’t happened yet is that not enough people actually own Beams.

“Generally, I would be worried about a device either being used as an access method to my devices or as an information-gathering tool on its own,” James Loving, a security researcher affiliated with MIT, told me via email. But in this case, he said:

I’m not particularly worried about either concern: The Beam only advertises Bluetooth capabilities (I’d be worried if it advertised Wi-Fi, which has a longer range and is thus more easily exploited), and doesn’t add much capability to an adversary. (The only sensor appears to be for ambient light—no camera or microphone). The worst I can think of off-hand? An adversary channeling their inner Draco Malfoy to create some form of a “Potter Stinks” button-virus.

Draco Malfoy would totally join the alt-right, I’m just saying.

Is the Beam more likely to be used to solve or commit a crime? I would say solve a crime, because in my estimation we are only a few years away from some a world in which, assuming widespread Beam adoption, photographs of wanted criminals are sent out by police and compulsorily displayed on all wearers’ devices.

Should this thing be smart? Sure, why not? The Beam seems harmless enough and the charitable sentiments professed by Beam Authentic are laudable. While the product just seems superfluous to me—and while spending $99 on a smart button certainly strikes me as kind of stupid—I’m sure there are people out there who have been dying for the chance to wear GIFs on their lapel. If you are that sort of person, you will probably enjoy the Beam.