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Russell Smith unpacks online gadget porn and finds a fetish Add to ...

If you want evidence for the terrible sadness of young men's lives, look no further than an Internet trend called unboxing. This is an art form in which one makes a video recording of the unwrapping of a new piece of electronic machinery, along with a commentary that proves your expertise on the equipment in question, as well as on its packaging and marketing.

It began as a form of product review: Websites for gamers and for gadget lovers would put up these videos of a pair of hands opening up the box of the new PlayStation or iPhone or MacBook - usually a brand-new product or version of a product, something only the well-connected would have seen - and show the salivating viewers what exactly came in the box they were not yet able to buy.



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At the same time, the invisible unboxer would list the intimidating specs of the new product ("Six megs of L-2 cache, four gigs of DDR3 memory…").

The commentator here was usually a writer or editor for the site, so an official expert, and this kind of video was and still is called a "hands-on review." It has at least the pretence of imparting useful information to a potential purchaser.

But there was something odd about this practice even from the beginning. The supergeeks knew what their supergeek audience was looking for, and it was to do with recreating that magic moment, imprinted from childhood Christmases, of opening a new toy. These videos linger over every Styrofoam buffer, every power-cable twist-tie, every instruction manual. Indeed the careful laying out and turning over of instruction manuals and warranty cards can take up endless silent - and fantastically boring - minutes of these films. They quickly became known as "gadget porn." The packaging itself is often praised and deferentially handled. And there is something obviously sexual about the delicious moment of removing the outermost packaging, even the Purolator box.

Watch the reverential treatment of the successive boxes in the "hands-on review" of the MacBook Pro on theunboxing.com: The tapes are slit open as if in a risky surgery and the boxes delicately placed aside. Then all the little baggies with cables and other plastic bits get their own lingering close-ups. You can tell that to skip a mundane step would be heartbreaking to a purist.

The "video review" practice of the tech sites got the amateurs going too, and now making your own unboxing video - of whatever your favourite addictive devices are - is competitive. Go to YouTube and search "unboxing": You'll see 157,000 results. That's 157,000 lonely basements, 157,000 nervous guys boasting that they got this unit before anyone else did because they had a hold on it, and they're going to share the moment of booting it right now with you. I say nervous because a good third of them apologize for the video quality, and a quarter explain that it's their first unbox, so be easy on them.

Unboxing is a nerve-wracking sport, apparently, where the critical comments can be unforgiving. You'd better not get any specs wrong: You'd better not omit the fact that the new screen is three millimetres larger than it was on the 500 series. And you'd better share in real time the whole welcome screen and the set-up process - you know, all the setting the date and language and registering that for most people is annoyingly time consuming.

Fetishes - those objects which have been imbued with a magic power - are always just impenetrable dull objects to those outside the religion. Sexual fetishes, or paraphilias, work the same way: Sexual desire gets transferred from people to an object or substance. The billion sexual-fetish videos online are equally dull if you don't share the fetish: Watch someone being meticulously wrapped in plastic film for 10 minutes or so and you will be tempted to fast forward to the action part. You are missing the point: This, to a cling-wrap fetishist, is the action. That loving, careful, painstaking wrapping. Just like this determinedly slow unwrapping.

Why is this particular fetish sad? Well, first, because it is not, unlike the cling-wrap stuff, admitted to be sexual or even a sublimation of sex. Second, because it's mindlessly materialistic, and it can't be separated in any way from the product's paid advertising, and most unboxers are not being paid for it. (In fact, now the game manufacturers are producing their own amateur-looking unboxing videos to promote their own products: Check out the "official" unboxing video for Modern Warfare 2 Prestige Edition on YouTube, for example.) Third, because, oh, come on, every single thing about this is horribly sad.

Here is a revealing moment about the obsessive tendencies of the average unboxer. In a video unboxing of the Griffin Simplifi, which is an iPod dock, the anonymous narrator takes the unit out, but can't bring himself to remove the protective plastic film from either end. You can see his fingers worrying at it, beginning the peel, then stopping. He says, "You get film, little plastic film on either end. I haven't removed it because.…" And there's a millisecond of hesitation here. He says quickly, "I don't want to," and moves on. It's a sensitive subject, obviously. Why go into one's reasons for keeping all the plastic film on all one's pristine products? It's no one else's business. It's hard to explain. Just don't touch it, please.

He goes on to outline his future ambitions: "Hopefully I'll get some money and I'm going to get some more stuff." People will subscribe to his series to see how his quest progresses. I suppose it's good to have ambitions, any ambitions at all.

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