Eugene Polley, the inventor of the first wireless television remote control, once said that “the flush toilet may have been the most civilized invention ever devised, but the remote control is the next most important.”
Which makes sense. The flush toilet fundamentally altered domestic space; it not only brought elimination indoors but also created a network of pipes within the house, an architectural extension of the human digestive system. These pipes connected our most private functions to vast public networks of waste disposal. The flush toilet changed the way we poop—and also the way we live with and understand our houses and families. The flush toilet is so ingrained in our notions of what it means to be modern that we can hardly imagine our lives without it.
But the remote control?
Yes, in fact—this seemingly innocuous media accessory has also changed the way we inhabit our houses and experience our families. The effects of remote controls have cascaded through the home, affecting how we arrange our domestic spaces, whom we share them with, and what we do there.
I live in a small two-bedroom apartment in Washington, D.C. All of the chairs in my living room are located on one side of the room, across from the HDTV. This arrangement suits the size and design of our television monitor, but then, big screen TVs were made possible by the remote control. Without a remote, no one would want to sit across the room from their television set. Our HDTV-oriented living room makes group gatherings difficult, but that hardly matters since media consumption has become its primary function. The living room has four remote controls—the national average—that completely commandeer the coffee table. If they’re not on the table, they tend to go missing, and without its remotes, the room becomes dysfunctional. My living room is proof that remotes rewire the home physically and socially, which may be why Polley was not the first person to liken remote controls to indoor plumbing.