Saturday, April 14, 2012

Pressing Pause

Electronic remote controls have been around long enough now that we no longer regard them as magical. We take for granted the existence of cybernetic extensions of our will. We take them for granted just as we take for granted that our hands will always act in tandem with our brain. But remote controls have an element of power that our hands will never possess. It is one thing to turn a television on or off. We can do that easy enough without a remote control. Likewise, it is no great advancement to be able to switch channels without the use of our hands. Perhaps we can go a little faster without the cumbersome task of rotating our wrists, but when we are switching channels we are essentially moving through space, which is a task our bodies navigate regularly.

But what the remote control offers is control over the temporal dimension. Granted, its power is limited to the control of imaginary worlds and mediated experiences, but it is still a power that our hands do not possess in any form. Perhaps the most underrated aspect of modern media consumption is that we have developed a means for disrupting linear progression. True, one could always manipulate written texts by skimming, using bookmarks, or reading out of order. But because the coherent text was always present even when engaging in such activity, one always had an anchor in time. Now, we obliterate that anchor when we push buttons.

It's remarkable how this practice has become ingrained in our speech, even when we are talking about the real world that we can't control with buttons. A few years ago, Secretary of State Clinton famously presented a replica "reset button" to a Russian counterpart (even if there was some difficulty in translating the word "reset"). It is now customary for people, when relating a narrative and wanting to omit material, to say something along the lines of "fast forward to today." An attempt to use that metaphor one generation ago would have resulted in a blank stare.

Reflecting our perhaps latent fascination with the tantalizing prospect of power that remote controls offer, several television shows and movies have been produced which incorporate this theme, most notably the Adam Sandler film Click.

But I've come to think that the most powerful button a remote control is not "reset" or "fast forward," but "pause." Oddly, in the late 1980s there was a syndicated show (Out of This World) built around the premise of a half-alien teenage girl whose sole superpower for most of the show's run was the ability to stop time. But then again, maybe this isn't so remarkable. Just as Adam Sandler's character reflected our desire to sometimes skip moments in our life that are unpleasant, this character reflected our desire to sometimes stop and savor the moment we live in.

It's obviously for the best that we can't control time, for we would surely abuse this ability. But it's also nice to live in a time when, however artificial and contrived it may be, we can exercise a modicum of authority over that which we are otherwise beholden to entirely.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoy being able to pause Kal's On-Demand shows so he can take a break when he gets distracted and then watch the rest of the show later.

8:21 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home