November 10, 2003
The time of the Multiple Remotes

Now that we live in the historic epoch – which got under way early in the nineteenth century with photography – of Recording, we can look back at the archives of earlier decades and chuckle at those transitional technologies which had only just been devised, but not perfected. Each decade has its characteristic signature gadgets, starting with those cameras, on tripods and with the photographer hiding under a blanket. Model T Fords. Telephones in two separate bits. Propeller driven aeroplanes. Black and white televisions. Vacuum cleaners the shape of giant Swiss Rolls. Ancient tape recorders with giant wheels of tape that you had to cut with scissors. Gramophone records. Portable telephones the size of shoe boxes. Giant genuinely floppy floppy discs. VHS videos and TV screens that stick out at the back are beginning their descent into the same memory banks.

Time was when it was very hard to notice these things in the historic record. We can see the battles and the kings and the queens, the opening up of continents and the industrial revolutions. Spotting the subtle changes in things like eighteenth century tea kettles and coal scuttles and fifteenth century butter churns and pig sties is harder. But now these kinds of details have also become easy for us all to remember, when we see them in the photographs and the newsreels and the ancient TV shows.

So here now is an image that will, I suggest, do a lot to define the very particular moment of domestic history that we are now living through:


A decade ago, none of us had so many of these damned things. In ten years time, the mess will probably have been sorted out. But now – just now – this is a small but definite thing which pinpoints our little moment in history. We now live in The Time of The Multiple Remotes.

Let me itemise these particular remotes for you, for they are mine, and I have just photographed them for you. From left to right as we look: (1) The television, (2) The video, (3) The tuner/amplifier component of my medium fi system (4) The compact disk player, ditto, (5) The digital box attachment to the television, (6) The DVD player, (7) The digital radio that has replaced the (analogue) tuner bit of the tuner/amp. I dare say there'll be more in the years to come.

But I don't really have to spell it all out for you, do I? You probably have just such a collection yourself. I live alone, and my collection adds up to a single control panel, albeit a rather complicated and unwieldy one. All my Remotes occupy the same shelf on my desk.

But pity the families. There, the Remotes move hither and thither like a litter of unruly puppies.

The relationship of the father of the modern family to his various Remotes is a metaphor for his entire life. When a modern man has a family, his life is no longer his own, and because of the multiplicity of all those Remotes, the very "control" which they are supposed to supply slips from his hands. When there was only one Remote, he was its Lord and Master, but not any more.

Luckily he doesn't have time to pay careful attention to all the electronic message receivers and displays these magic wands supposedly command for him, but which actually behave towards him more like a barrier. He has more important things to attend to.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:19 PM
Category: HistoryMy cultureTechnology