Despite the complaints, Doctor Little kept requiring everyone to cooperate with the Thinking Machine, since disciplined conversations helped drag it toward better English.
Guy Enver-Wilson and Bob Turcotte never complained—to the Doctor, anyway—because talking with TM was part of their jobs. But no one else went into Turcotte’s testing lab now unless they had to. One day the Doctor needed a face-to-face talk with Mr. Bob and got a dose of his own prescription.
As the boss walked in, he nodded to technicians across the room.
Bob was at his desk in the far corner talking on the phone. He called out, “Doc, I’ll be right with you,” and pointed to a folder on the table. “Help yourself in the meantime.”
Little picked up the folder but saw the machine circle slowly, looking him up and down.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“I am looking for all the buttons,” said TM, as if that were something one might routinely do.
“That isn’t enough information, TM-2000. Please explain,” said Doc while noting that everyone had several buttons in plain sight, although his own lab coat was missing one. It had become another of his trademarks. An instant before TM spoke, Little realized what the machine would probably say, but he couldn’t get the necessary words out in time.
“Buttons,” the machine began, “are bits of—”
“ Yes, yes, I know what buttons are,” Doc said with a sigh. “I should have asked, ‘Why are you searching for buttons, TM-2000?’”
TM came close and replied in a conspiratorial tone as if it were all one sentence:
“Mr. Guy told me earlier today that people have buttons someone else can push to get them to act in predictable ways. He said people who decide what to do based on their feelings at the moment are easily manipulated that way: Just decide what you want them to do, then set the button up by making them uncomfortable—or comfortable—in a particular way, and then, when discomfort—or comfort—is high, press the button. He said they will probably act the way you want, provided you are experienced in recognizing people’s buttons and behaviors, or have lived so long with that kind of button yourself that you know what sets it up and how to push it. He also said many people have some buttons active nearly all of the time, and so for those you do not need the first step of making them uncomfortable—or comfortable—since they are always uncomfortable—or comfortable—in those ways. It all seems Pavlovian and very scientific.”
TM now showed a bright smile and continued with quiet confidence, “Naturally, I want to test whether what he says about buttons and feelings is true, so, as a first step, I look for the buttons. I must start with buttons since I do not understand the process—especially the part about feelings—in any except a theoretical way. Have you any buttons, Doctor?”
Doc thought, Where does Guy get this stuff? Why does he give the machine so much junk to deal with?
“It’s difficult for people to see their own buttons, TM-2000.”
“Can they not look in a mirror or an array of mirrors?”
Little had told others to answer as honestly, and even as wisely as possible, but he answered with junk stuff of his own: “No …and yes. The buttons themselves are inside our heads—so to speak.” He glanced to see if Bob was done. Turcotte still had the phone to his ear and had just turned away, so Doc went reluctantly on: “Some people are uncomfortable or vain about some aspect of their appearance and react predictably at the mention of that aspect. I used to be sensitive about my hair getting grey after… Uh, and I wasted money and time on hair coloring for a while.”
Bob was still on the phone, mumbling, nodding, and making notes.
Not quite able to catch Bobby’s eye, the Doctor droned on as a way to hold the machine at bay. Looking from the TM to Bobby and back, he continued as casually as his discomfort allowed:
“People make money selling things and ideas. You’d be surprised at how often selling a thing is really selling an idea. They try to persuade as many as they can to buy as much as possible. The business version of the process is called marketing or advertising. What some people call information or marketing, others might call propaganda or BS.”
Bob still faced away. The Doctor looked around, and then at his watch.
“Thank you, Doctor,” the machine said politely. “What are some of your other buttons?”
“It’s none of your business, TM. Don’t ask about people’s buttons.”
“People have mentioned your buttons, Doctor, and I need to know whether they are telling to me the truth.”
Now aware that his conversation was the entire lab’s center of attention, Doc looked around again. Every head was averted and motionless, but he felt their minds all over him like a wet shirt.
“TM,” he said calmly, “you mustn’t betray confidences, or pry into someone’s private affairs. In most cases it’s not polite, and in some cases it’s not legal. Find other ways to verify things.”
“Yes, thank you, and goodbye, Doctor.” It turned and rolled away.
On its back, Doc saw screens from Internet medical sites. “TM,” he called out, “you won’t find any buttons in... unless someone has... Oh, just tell Guy about our talk. He started this. He can finish it.”
Immediately Bob nodded. “Yes! Certainly… Goodbye.” He put the phone in its cradle and walked over to finish his business with the boss.
After Doc had exited the lab, Bobby scuttled to the doors and peeked both ways in the hall. Carefully he shut the doors and turned with a big grin to the expectant faces in the room. They howled with laughter that echoed discreetly for days.