Over the years at Trinity University I have increasingly become the recipient of the "pop" information requests--that is, topics many of my esteemed colleagues wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pointer out of fear of intellectual contamination and degradation--from the media establishments. Many of these deal with popular cultural trends, like the Selena deification, Xers skirmishes with Boomers, or the long-term consequences of the 1992 "The Mommy-To-Be Doll" (that featured easy Caesarians and no stretch marks) or the 70s Barbie doll whose breasts grew as one rotated her arms. Recently I was approached by a local radio personality for reflections on the fortieth anniversary of the television remote controller. I couldn't resist.

It was in June of 1955 that the television remote controller first entered the American home (and into the little hands of young Boomers). Little did anyone suspect the profound cultural revolution this small gadget was about to trigger. Indeed, it inaugurated (and has come to epitomize) the "push-button" mentality of our times, producing millions of pounds of excess body fat, new battlefields in the war between the sexes, and postmodern mindsets.

Remotes were to stimulate rising expectations that supported a generation of American tinkerers. The first were "wired" (with, it seemed, a hundred yards of line), leading to an ever-entangled public demanding a wireless version. Needing more places to zap led to the satellite dish and cable industries. Increasing zapping ranges led to increasing screen sizes. The ringing of fixed, out-of-reach telephones could only be tolerated for a few decades before remote phones and answering systems became necessities. Unable to so easily change the scenery at work (would it not be great to be able to mute one's boss or to transform colleagues into the Baywatch cast?), the deprived zap-addicted worker increasingly compensated at home, lessening available time for meal preparation. This, of course, gave rise to the quickie TV dinner, itself zapped by microwaves in commercial- length time. And now we find its disappearance under couch cushions or in other strange places producing the need for remotes to cry out when lost.

If televisions can be remotely controlled, why not the rest of our technological toys --our stereo receivers, tape decks, VCRs, CD and DVD players, cable boxes, lights, garage doors, and auto alarms? And it came to pass, producing a mild case of techno-shock for the pre-remote generations who remember having to get out of their chairs to change stations or to adjust their sets to follow drifting radio signals. Next to telekinesis, what could be more remarkable than being twenty feet away and able, with a push of a button, to thoroughly alter one's environment? The young take all of this in stride, but imagine the sense of awe of some aborigine if he were suddenly transported from his cave into a contemporary home. Could it be nothing less than magic?

One wonders about the complicity of the remote in the feminist movement, which followed its innovation. Adult male dominance on the homefront was to contract to the extent that the only thing left for him to control were the remotes. Only Dad (besides, of course, the kids) has mastered the correct combination of buttons to get the cable box, television, and DVD working. But it may well be that the males of our species have cut away from too many "Gone With the Wind" conclusions so as to view the final two minutes of their football and basketball games. Perhaps women are simply turned off by the New Push-button Male. Evolution has taken him beyond the lean military look, in pressed uniform with saber at side; beyond the Clint Eastwood look, with revolver in holster ready to outdraw any challenge; and even beyond the toolbelted look of Tim Allen, when midsections were decorated with the tools of one's trade. Now there he is in his pastel jumpsuit, pockets filled with remote controllers to manipulate his castle from the recliner.

The higher the status of the male the greater this control is exercised, which is why divorce rates are higher in the upper classes. A 1988 study by L.D. Percy & Co. data examined zapping behavior--to be precise, minutes per zap. For instance, a viewer who watches one channel for five minutes and zaps to three others in the sixth minute has an average zapping rate of once every two minutes. The average household zapped once every 3 minutes and 42 seconds. For those without remote control the zapping rate was once every 5 minutes and 15 seconds, compared to once every 3 minutes and 42 seconds for those with (having cable increased the behavior to once every 3 minutes).

< $15,000 6 minutes, 15 seconds
$15-$24,999 4 minutes, 10 seconds
$25-$49,999 3 minutes, 27 seconds
$50-$74,999 3 minutes, 7 seconds
$75,000+ 2 minutes, 42 seconds

The final cultural trend precipitated may be the most damaging in the long run. It involves what social scientists refer to as postmodernism, featuring lives no longer filled with coherent, shared stories but rather a cacophony of international images, statistics, and values. Unlike the past when, in addition to weather and sports, people could at least share their reactions to a particular television show, nowadays everyone's evening viewing is unique. And as our snippets of television story lines are shortened, as attention deficit disorders grow, other mediums have contracted their messages from lengthy "big picture" elaborations to pithy  "factoids." U.S. News & World Report, for instance, begins with a "Database" section, with such insights as:

Increase in the annual number of pages faxed between 1987 and today: 700%.
Not to be out-shortened, Time magazine now commences with a "Chronicles" section, featuring such information as a graph captioned "Media Self- Flagellation Watch--Number of articles in major news outlets containing the word `Whitewater' as well as the phrase `feeding frenzy.'"

Sherlock Holmes once told Watson how the mind is like an attic. "You have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out." A century later it seems that our mental attics are filled not so much with furniture as with statistical knick-knacks and electronic dust, all rearrangeable with the ol' remote.

Hey, this is getting too heavy. Time to click the hypertexted line below and get out of here!

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