Icon of the Month: The remote control | icon 048 | June 2007

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words William Wiles

Television meant that you didn’t have to leave the house to be entertained – the remote control meant that you didn’t have to leave the sofa. For our increasingly sedentary, lazy society, the remote holds a promise of the ultimate in convenience – everything within arm’s reach, no effort required.

We associate the rise of the remote control with the rise of television, but the clicker has a unique path of its own. It predated television, and the first patent for a remote-control device was sought by prolific super-inventor Nikola Tesla in 1893, for controlling vehicles using radio waves. But it was Robert Adler, who died this year, who developed it as the ubiquitous accessory we know today. He designed the first
mass-market wireless remote control, which appeared in 1956 with the suitably jet-age name Zenith Space Command. It used an ultrasonic signal that could be heard by dogs and some young women.

As the Leisure Age conquered first America, then the world, remotes became more sophisticated and infra-red and electro-magnetic systems replaced ultrasonics. Arthur C Clarke said: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Remote controls are a simple form of technological magic, a household wand. As the sorcerers of mythology knew, even humdrum magic is a kind of power to be jealously guarded. It used to be that the youngest or most easily coerced of a household changed the TV channels. Now that job has status – the holding of the remote is a potency to be retained or a privilege to be granted.

To effect changes to one’s environment at a distance while remaining in one’s seat is the mental territory of ancien regime monarchs; the remote has become the totem of domestic absolutism as surely as the sceptre symbolises the sovereign’s power. A truly universal remote is a recurring fantasy in our society, a surrogate for magic as a key to omnipotence (an all-powerful remote is the central conceit of Adam Sandler’s recent movie Click).

For half a century the remote control has helped us remain immobile. It is the idol of idleness. For many, doing has been supplanted by viewing, and participation is limited to the remote control’s “red button”for interactivity. But as remote technology continues to improve, it may play a part in undoing the damage it has helped cause. In computer game systems such as Nintendo’s Wii, the umbilical cord has been cut between player and screen, and truly remote, wire-free controllers have come into play. These pick up a player’s movements as well as what buttons they press, so they can simulate using a sword in fight, a fishing rod, a ski pole or nearly anything. Players can literally throw themselves into games, standing up and using every part of their bodies. In getting computer-game-playing kids out of their seats, the remote control is performing its newest magic trick – having made us idle, it is making us exercise.

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