Rest In Peace, Mr. TV-Remote Inventor

Increasingly, any television without TiVo or some other digital video recorder is perceived to be a broken television -- and if not broken, then often near unbearable! Time and attention are scarce, and DVRs help people control and optimize their video consumption.

While I witnessed the DVR's arrival and since have baked its benefits into my life, it's important to note I was born into a world where the television remote-control was already ubiquitous. That ubiquity is probably why I've always taken it for granted -- until recently. With the death last week of Dr. Robert Adler, co-inventor of the television remote, it's time to pay tribute to this great man and his invention.

Sure, many credit him for breeding a new generation of couch potatoes, or creating an endless stream of esoteric scientific patents. But I credit him for a whole lot more. His work on the wireless remote control quickly penetrated nearly every household with a television, with little hesitation. Conservatively speaking, the television remote's rapid adoption prompted a new era in modern society. How many recent inventions have done that? Very few, to be sure.



Here are a few of the major shifts the TV remote led:

First of all, the device introduced ad-skipping in a big way. This still is tremendously disruptive to a shelf-space economy predicated upon interception and interruption of consumer attention. The television remote was a spiritual awakening for consumers who felt inconvenienced, violated, distracted or bombarded. It led the way to DVRs, Web pop-up blockers and do-not-call lists, among other commercial avoidances. It even represented order and security, soothing a fundamental human insecurity that so much advertising propagates: the fear of being out of control. It was perhaps the most significant contribution to the movement of consumer empowerment, which today is wreaking havoc on the remaining legacies of mass marketing and media.

Second, the television remote prompted the rewiring of the modern human brain. In the process of enabling greater control, it introduced the notion of channel surfing, characterized by the aimless, passive shifting of focus and attention -- and sometimes, free association. The result: attention deficit disorder. The very act of indifferent surfing became perhaps just as significant an activity as focused appointment viewing. This led the way for even more splintering of focus, compounded with the arrival of more media devices, programming options and interactivity. Surfing changed the type of content created, how it's delivered, and how marketers attempt to reach consumers. With the advent of the Web and all its utility, surfing arguably is the most common activity on the Internet today! The television remote seeded the emergence of a labyrinth of simultaneous information consumption and interaction. Far beyond the struggle for marketers to keep up, the result is a fundamental shift even in the way humans relate to one another on the most personal levels.

Finally, the television remote prompted a new era of consumer expectation, where all things can be controlled or programmed instantaneously from afar. We can order take-out meals and download movies, pay our bills, talk, conduct business and even receive medical treatment. The television remote conditioned us to optimize and program our lives with the touch of a few buttons on portable devices.

In summary, the television remote was massively important for the medium of television. More important, it introduced a new paradigm of control and ease, which continues to guide the advancement of media, information and commerce. Without question, the changes it dawned are manifesting even faster as the digital age permeates.

The irony is that Dr. Adler wouldn't have chosen the remote control as his favorite invention, nor did he even watch much television. Still, it remains one of the most profound and important inventions in recent history. It changed everything.

Rest in peace, Dr. Adler. Your legacy lives on forever.

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