Clicker may give us control over chaos

Rarely does an Adam Sandler movie spark deep critical thinking. But in the new movie Click, Sandler plays a man whose remote control can ride herd over not just his TV, but also over time itself. He can fast-forward, pause, rewind.

The remote control seems so ordinary that its extraordinariness is easy to miss.


In the half-century since it was first hooked to TVs in American homes, the remote control has become faster, easier, sleeker, more efficient, more sophisticated and applicable to a spiraling number of gadgets: DVD players, ceiling fans, automobiles, draperies, security systems. Remote controls have gone from luxuries to necessities faster than you can say, "Hey, has anybody seen the clicker?"

While the physical effects are pretty obvious, there may be a subtler fallout as well. Do our daily lives feel different to us because we're accessing so many technologies with remote control devices?


Certainly the experience of watching TV shows or movies at home has been completely altered by a clicker; we're more restless, more impatient, sifting through channels like a frenzied shopper facing a table of temporary mark-downs.

Beyond TVs, though, remote controls also are used in concert with more and more household functions and objects. Domestic life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was fundamentally transformed by the large-scale adoption of labor-saving devices such as washing machines, central heating, sewing machines and refrigerators, but the remote control, you could argue, has done even more. It has given us the illusion of control over our lives.

"The remote control is like the steering wheel on your car," said Hank Eisengrein, national sales and training manager for Universal Remote Control, the world's third-largest maker of remote controls. "You still need the engine and the tires, but when you're out on the interstate, the one thing you don't want to be without is that steering wheel."

Eisengrein, whose Harrison, N.Y.-based company makes 2 million remote controls a month for companies such as Comcast, Toshiba, Zenith and Motorola, said his business has really stepped up in the past few years. For a long time now, everybody has wanted to control everything with a remote control; but nowadays, Eisengrein said, everybody wants to control everything with a single device.

Remote controls for TVs were developed in the early 1950s by researchers at Zenith, according to a technology history supplied by New Remotes, a Tampa, Fla.-based electronics supply company. The device - primitive by today's standards - was dubbed "Lazy Bones." Attached to the set by a cord, it moved the channel changer either direction and controlled the set's on-off switch.

Earlier, inventors had created devices that could run cars and model airplanes by remote controls. In World War II, the Germans developed cruelly effective remote-control technology to launch missiles. The dark side of remote controls continues to haunt us to this day, as insurgents in Iraq are able to plant bombs alongside roadsides and detonate them remotely.

But it was Zenith employee Robert Adler who made the remote control what it is today. In 1956, the company began marketing his innovative remote, which employed high-frequency sound to control a TV's functions. Today, virtually all TVs are sold with remote controls, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. So even if you want to change the channels yourself, you can't.

So as modern life - and Sandler's movie - remind us, we're tethered to our remote controls. We're more attached to the means by which we access technology than the technology itself. We want to dictate, to dominate, to be in charge, and we want to do that with the absolute minimum of physical exertion.


But maybe our motivation for all of this isn't strictly laziness. Maybe our eagerness to embrace remote controls - to put our palms in charge of the known world - has something to do with just how complicated and chaotic that world has become.

A remote control is a way of whittling the world down to size, of making it seem slightly less threatening and capricious. It's a relatively new technology that happens to soothe the most ancient fear: that we're just hapless scraps blown about by an indifferent wind, that we're doomed and can't do a darned thing about it.

And that's a lot of philosophy to lay at the galumphing feet of Adam Sandler.

Julia Keller writes for the Chicago Tribune.