I saw my first remote control years ago, Its buttons used hammers to strike tuned aluminum rods that triggered a motor to rotate the tuner. It seemed very intricate and very expensive at the time, beyond the reach of normal people.
Today, remote controls are so ubiquitous that the Modern Family episode I saw last night was intricately written that to miss a second would have lost you important jokes. Not does it dynamically keep your attention, it can stand multiple viewings.
There was a time, before users thought that they should have a choice about every second of their viewing time, that people actually learned to sit through the slow bits, the quiet bits, even the crappy bits of what they were offered. Options were limited, it took effort to change the channel and fast forwarding wasn’t even considered, so we learned to take what came, whatever it was.
Today, though, in an information economy, attention is the ultimate commodity. People just tune out of the bits that they consider noise, switching the content in a desperate attempt to find the perfect content for them, without all the challenging, slow or hard bits.
How do we engage a workplace, for example, where someone has to do the shit work, when we believe that we are entitled to a remote control which lets us choose which parts we should have to go through? When we think that we know better, that we should have the final edit of everything that we pass through, making it more convenient, more comfortable, more tailored to our impulse and whims, how do we learn to work through the crappy parts?
There is a reason that things today are much more sensation based, designed to grab and hold attention rather than making people work hard for the payoffs they get. By not demanding investment from the participants, the results become much less satisfying to them, much less rewarding.
In an age where the remote control is ubiquitous, teaching us that we can zap past the stuff we find to be crappy, attention, discipline and grace have become skills to learn rather than becoming regular habits. We begin to think that our precious time is being wasted when we feel forced to sit through something that we didn’t choose, don’t have direct control over, even if the choices we would make for ourselves don’t come with any thought, structure or conscious priorities.
Learning to respect what we get, even if it isn’t what we would choose to get, is a key part of growing up. There is a reason we drag kids to assembly’s, church services, town pageants and bluegrass festivals; we want them to learn to be a good audience, present and receptive even when everything there is not of their choosing.
Nothing we engage in will ever be perfect, be it a variety show, an education, a job or a relationship. The reason that new relationships feel so amazing, for example, is not so we can only stay in relationships until they feel like work, but so we can take the edge off and do the hard work of building patterns, understandings and trust. Just cherry picking the buzz stops us from ever getting deeper, finding more meaning, building something more lasting.
Roll your own doesn’t mean only taking the fun bits and leaving the crappy ones. Your imagined magic remote control won’t take the challenging and difficult parts away, won’t negate the need for grace, patience and discipline.
Life. You actually have to be present to win.