Yesterday's WSJ A-hed silly story was about a new "viral" kind of consumerist porn proliferating on the Internet: people watching videos of other people opening high-tech toys, such as PS3s and Palm Treos.
The videos are every bit as prosaic as you might imagine. Typical is one made by Vincent Nguyen, who launched unbox.it. He opens a box containing the highly coveted Nintendo Wii videogame console. After tearing away red and white snowflake gift-wrap to reveal the box, he slowly examines it and then pulls out every cable, remote control and instructional manual. Finally, he gets to the console itself. "Let's unveil it, let's take our time here on the big baby that we just now are getting in," he says.George Harrison, a Nintendo executive who is presumably not also the dead Beatle, though the article maakes no effort to clarify this point, is not impressed ("It doesn't strike me, as a marketer, that it would be fascinating for someone to open the packaging," he says), but also cited is some designy type talking about what an adventure it is to open an iPod Shuffle package. Here's a thought: Rafting down the Amazon through the jungles of equatorial Peru is an adventure. Riding across the forbidding steppes of Russia's far east on the Trans-Siberian railroad is an adventure. Opening an iPod box is not.
It's probably wise not to read much into this pseudo-phenomenon, which mainly proftis from having a holiday season news-peg. But I'll ignore my own advice and speculate that not only does this suggests how infantile consumerist culture is, regressing us back to the primal pleasures of the fort-da game, but it exemplifies how the thrill of possession, the excitement and anticipation of owning some new thing that's been deemed exciting and unprecedented, has nothing to do with an object's function and everything to do with a brief, elusive moment of fulfillment, of having caught up to the cutting edge, that we can now consume vicariously, thanks to these videos, in its purest form. I don't doubt that packaging is of critical importance for gadgetry, that the moment of pleasure that comes in the first blush of ownership as you remove the wrapping -- the proof that the object is unsullied and the symbol that reminds you that you are the first and only person who will discover this object, which has been laboriously made just for you -- stands out far more in most owners' minds than any subsequent utility he might derive, which is, after all, taken for granted.We can return to the climactic moment of the shopping ritual, when the object is new and unblemished, completely at one with all our fantasies of its potential to change us, before the inevitable falling away to disappointment when we learn that a Wii doesn't really make us existentially complete (and that, in fact, shadow-boxing the air in your living room with a electronic stick in your hand doesn't especially fill you with self-worth either).