The Remote Control as Subversive Technology

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It is no accident that we surfed channels before we surfed the web.

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Television began as a box. It sat on the floor and it had honest-to-goodness knobs. If you needed to change something on the television, like the frequency to which it was tuned, you had to turn the knobs. You pulled a different one to bring it to life and pushed it back in to silence it. It made a physical noise that did not play from a speaker. The act of watching TV required you to physically touch the box surrounding the tube. Changing the channel while simultaneously watching the television was not physically easy.

The television was that box. But television was also a sociotechnical system of producing, distributing, and consuming a certain kind of media. There were three channels that were scheduled in blocks of time (30 minutes, 60 minutes). There were local affiliates that broadcast national news. The specificities of the system were many. And the actual technological objects -- the boxes -- both influenced the larger system and were influenced by it. (Just like now: what your phone can do changes the network; what the network can do eventually changes your phone.)

Fast forward to today. The distribution of moving pictures to human beings in their homes has changed along almost every vector. People pick and choose. They DVR. They have hundreds of cable channels. They watch video on YouTube and Vimeo. They make their own videos. CNN picks up video from some guy's phone and some other guy's phone plays that video routed through the global brand that is CNN.

The obvious route from that old television set to our current world of video entertainment and news runs through cable. Cable, the story goes, gave consumers more choices. It broke the hegemony of the big three networks with the help of satellite television, VCRs, and Fox. Meanwhile, the Internet was built, creating a vast, peer-to-peer distribution network.

But that narrative --  like this version found at the Museum of Broadcast Communications -- leaves out a lowly but important change agent: the remote control. The remote control diffused more rapidly than television itself and more widely than cable or even the VCR or its descendants. While we say "everyone has an iPhone," the truth was that everyone really did have a remote control. This was an immensely useful technology.

We look back at the remote control's role in changing the nature of television today because a co-creator of the wireless remote, Eugene Polley, died Sunday at the age of 96. His work at Zenith, in part, laid the groundwork for a new kind of television and maybe for new ways of thinking about what home entertainment should be.

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oldmanTV_615.jpgNational Archives

The best treatment of the role of the remote control comes to us from two communications professors, James R. Walker of Saint Xavier University and Robert Bellamy of Duquesne in their 2006 book, Television and the Remote Control: Grazing on a Vast Wasteland. They explicitly connect the development of the remote control with the rise in what we've come to call interactivity.

"The remote control is a subversive technology," they write. "By allowing the user to move rapidly between program offerings and avoid unpleasant or uninteresting material, the [remote control] works in opposition to the historic structure and operational parameters of the U.S. television industry."

That is to say, the remote control wasn't just a means of changing channels on the box, it was a means of changing structures within the industry. The new device meant people could change channels quickly and easily from the comfort of their sectionals, and that affordance meant that television stations could not continue to sell advertising or deliver programming the way that they had before when it was more difficult to change the channel. I do not think it is an accident that we started channel surfing (1986) before we started surfing the web.

Walker and Bellamy continue:

No longer can the viewer be conceptualized solely as passive recipient of the messages of advertisers. Rather, she or he now has the means to construct an individual media mix that may, or increasingly may not, contain advertising. In essence, the [remote control] allows the viewer to control some of the programming functions previously reserved for television and advertising executives.

Any of this sound familiar? The remote control was one of the first devices that users could use to craft their own experience of the medium of television. While we think of channel surfers as mindless at times, they were, at least, making active and frequent choices about what programming to watch. Within the constraints of the available content, they were programming their televisions, not solely being programmed.

Of course, this control only went so far. It is not as if television and advertising executives saw this potentially subversive device and did nothing. Rather, they changed the way they advertised. The industry consolidated with one driver being that the networks, dealing with a newly empowered audience, had to get into cable television. The idea that by changing channels, you could actually change the world sounds ridiculous, but it turns out to have a basis in reality. The only problem is that the entrenched forces in the world have their own levers that they are not shy about pulling.

Thus, Walker and Bellamy conclude, "A large number of distribution systems does not ensure a diversity of content." 

That, if you have watched television recently, still holds true. Certain types of programming continue to dominate. Certain types of advertising -- out of all the things you could possibly imagine -- remain prevalent. But sometimes a small change diffused widely can be as significant as a big change diffused narrowly. At one end of the spectrum, you have tiny numbers of early BBS, USENET, and Internet users, while at the other, you have everyone using a remote.

Even if television *looks* a lot like it once did, the audience has changed. Big chunks of it are gone. These people have moved on to the Internet and even when they watch television programming, they do it on Hulu or Netflix or through a DVR. And what are those services if not the offspring of a nation of channel surfers and a network of nerds?

So, thanks Mr. Polley for, in some way, helping make it easy to watch every episode of Friday Night Lights, years after the show ended and whenever I feel like it. The Zenith Flash-Matic may have been the product you worked on, but your contribution was more important than the device.


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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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