The Remote Control as Subversive Technology

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."

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