Just as we program media devices with our remotes, remotes program us to interact with the media in specific ways.

Remote control is both a technology and a cultural fantasy. Remotes are the dominant interface for communicating with media electronics today, but "remote control" is also an historically specific idea about how audiences might interact with the mass media, how they might maintain control as the media occupied more time in their lives and space in their homes. In 1929, advertisers represented the first remote controls for radio receivers as luxury items, in order to make radio listening seem more sophisticated and appealing to high-income audiences. In the 1950s, as television upended American domestic routines, TV manufacturers promoted the remote control as a tool to help men maintain sovereignty over the new electronic guest in their homes. Thirty years later, advertisers tied infrared remote controls to the 1980s ideal of personal empowerment and social advancement through high-tech electronics.

At each juncture, advertisers characterized remote controls as cutting edge; they ignored the device's history in order to propagate new ideas about what a remote control could signify. But remote control design is always historically and culturally contingent. People—inventors, industrial engineers, and entrepreneurs—developed and adapted remote control technology at specific moments in response to specific cultural pressures and market forces. Of course the remotes themselves did not always live up to their hype. Because remotes are designed to manage electronic devices, they quietly encourage us to use more—and buy more—electronics. They seem indispensable because they perpetuate the problems they purport to solve. That's why they often feel like a convenience and a nuisance at the same time.

Remotes are cultural artifacts, objects that contain significant information about the societies they emerge from and impact. They have a lot to teach us, for instance, about changes in US gender roles and family dynamics during the twentieth century. They reflect the ways that broadcast media's presence in the home challenges longstanding ideas about what counts as masculine and feminine, public and private, within and beyond our control. Just as we program media devices with our remotes, remotes program us to interact with the media in specific ways. Their design invents, invites, and encourages behavior such as muting commercials and fast-forwarding through sexually explicit scenes. So it would be a mistake to think that remotes do not produce profound changes in their environments. Cultural artifacts are not just passive registers of social forces; they are also social forces in their own right.

In fact the term remote control began as a meditation on social forces, on the strengths and shortcomings of democracy. The term originated in England in the eighteenth century, during the 1794 trial of Thomas Hardy for high treason. Hardy was one of twelve political organizers persecuted by the British Parliament, which feared that their calls for electoral reform might inspire an uprising similar to the French Revolution. During Hardy's trial, Solicitor General Sir John Milford coined the phrase "remote control" to describe the "control of people or institutions exercised at a distance." He contrasts "remote control" with Hardy's dream of direct democracy, of "a revolutionary government based on the rights of man, and equal citizenship, and so on, in which the people are to be considered as constantly sovereign, as constantly exerting the sovereign authority, and as having perpetual control over the whole government of the country; not an indirect and remote control." For Milford, "remote control" describes a representative democracy in which people elect delegates to govern on their behalf. Milford opposes "remote control" to Hardy's philosophy of direct democracy, but Hardy's dream lives on in our use of remote controls today. Their design — their many buttons and multifunction capabilities — encourages us to believe that remotes actually communicate our choices and preferences to the media. Remotes give us push-button sovereignty, but they also limit that sovereignty to our personal television sets. You can fast-forward all you want, in other words, but the media is not going to stop using commercials anytime soon.

Politicians and political theorists still use "remote control" in its civic sense, but the term attained its modern definition — as "a device for controlling a piece of equipment at a distance" — in the early twentieth century. The remote control device was born when Nikola Tesla sensationally launched the world's first remote-controlled boat at the 1898 Electrical Exhibition in New York City. Tesla, an electrical engineer and one of the original inventors of radio communications, described his invention as an "apparatus for controlling from a distance the operation of the propelling engines, the steering apparatus, and other mechanism carried by moving bodies or floating vessels."

In those days, there was much more military than commercial interest in remote control technology. At the same 1898 exhibition where Tesla introduced his remote-controlled boat, another radio pioneer, Guglielmo Marconi, presented a wireless detonation system for use in the Spanish-American War. André Gabet patented a radio-controlled torpedo in France in 1909, just in time for the First World War. During the war itself, British and German military forces experimented with remote-controlled rockets, tanks, planes, and boats. The most successful of these experiments was the German FL-7 or fernlenkboote (remote steering boat), which seemed directly inspired by Tesla's radio-controlled boat. The FL-7s were unmanned watercrafts that could carry up to 1,500 pounds of explosives and were connected to on-shore steering stations via fifty-mile spools of wire. They functioned like torpedoes rather than vessels, because their operators simply ran them into enemy targets to initiate devastating explosions. First deployed in 1916, FL-7s created a precedent for modern military drones, although we rarely describe such devices as remote-controlled today.

It is worth noting that Tesla's patent for his radio-controlled boat never uses the term "remote control." Engineers didn't refer to electronics as remote controlled until Walter V. Ash introduced the term in his 1903 patent for an "apparatus for remote control of electric motors." Ash was the first American to use the term "remote control" to patent one device that controlled another from a distance. His patent led the way for an adjective (remote) and a nominalization (control) to become one compound noun: remote control. This is a small syntactical shift, but it's important, because it explains some key ideological distinctions between remote control and other kinds of controllers.

For instance, the "remote" of "remote control" stresses the space between the user and the machine, a space that the remote control also occupies in a peculiar way. Remote controls use intangible signals—electronic pulses, radio waves, ultrasonic tones or light waves—to convey information across a physical interval. Both electric power and radio waves were new technologies in the early twentieth century, and together with the spread of telegraphy, they were changing the way people understood the world and the very notion of space. As various storywriters, poets, and journalists attest, the air seemed suddenly alive with information in ways it never had before. Electronic media were transforming space into ether, a medium for communiqués from great distances, including the great beyond. Home radio receivers brought remote voices indoors, making them a part of private family life. Such incursions disrupted the remoteness of the home, the family's psychic distance from the wider world. The material world was no longer providing firm boundaries for the psychic world, a phenomenon that generated both excitement and anxiety for radio listeners. In short, radios and electronic communication were forcing an ideological crisis for many early-twentieth-century families. Remote controls promised to restore the family's control over its remoteness, and best of all, Father would not even have to get up from his easy chair to use it.