The Joys of Modern Life: 27. Zappers

COULD IT be that things were so much more complicated then? Did we really pull ourselves clean out of our chairs, walk over to the TV set and - risking all kinds of cardiovascular complications - manually press a button to change the channel? I can practically hear the mocking, tinny laughter of the Smash robots echoing up from TV Hell.

Thank God for the TV zapper - once an item of unadulterated luxury, it now comes with even the lowliest TV set. They have been democratised, and zapping has become a right, not a privilege. How do they work? Who cares? Like butlers, zappers are discreet. And they are reliable: treat your zapper well, feed it the occasional battery, and it will reward you for years. Rarely do zappers go wrong. They are the unsung special agents of home entertainment. Little effort is put into making them look good, for zappers are mere functionaries. Of course, zappers can be irritating. Like gloves, umbrellas and matchboxes, they are good at getting lost - children are particularly good at finding them obscure new homes. For this reason, households circumscribe a zapper home-turf, usually atop the TV set, while hotels often have them on a bendy wire like a telephone receiver - oddly, people like to nick them even though they are nothing without a host TV. Such is their near-erotic allure.

The classic zapper hiding-place is under a sofa cushion. But sometimes they elude us for longer, and we are thrown back into the dark age of manual channel-changing - making us love the zapper even more when it re-emerges.

Zappers have even helped change home entertainment. No longer does the family have to commit itself to one stodgy programme.With zappers, television consumption is a promiscuous search for instant gratification. And frankly, this model suits the medium much better than the patrician fallacy of "instructive" TV.

Zappers have carved their own special role in small group interaction. Command the zapper, and you are the king of infinite televisual space. Lose the zapper, and you are at the mercy of the tribe leader. People get over this by taking turns with it, or throwing it from chair to chair in informal rotas. But as TV watching is increasingly a single person's activity, this is not too great a problem.

Zappers have also introduced interesting new body language variations. Some aim a zapper like a gun, putting their whole bodies behind it. Others have a more quizzical, circular approach. Zappers can even offer a substitute for language; a kind of semaphore. A friend's elderly relative had suffered a stroke, causing chronic dysphasia. Rather than attempt to speak, his emotions were conveyed via zapper-fire - rapid staccato channel changes expressed anger; sprightly hopping showed a lively interest; smooth, considered channel surfing meant that calm reigned.

Zappers are finding new applications daily. Many already have zappers for their stereos; some have them for their curtains. Advocates of "smart" domesticity suggest that households will soon sport a mega-zapper for everything: kettle-boiling, window-opening - possibly even toilet-flushing. But somehow it is the combination of the TV set and zapper that achieves true symbiosis.