Unboxing a Bad Column
I know I’m not the only one who’s been waiting for the unboxing column or post. Unboxing, if you’re unfamiliar, is the phenomenon of documenting taking a new, usually technological product out of its box, paying close attention to the packaging and conveying the feeling of ‘getting new gear’.
It’s the sort of thing dying for a good, insightful piece about the contemporary fetishisation of tech, and the blurring of identity, branding and desire. Alas, so far, we’ve all come up a bit short. I even know the perfect person to write it: a close friend, whose dissertation includes the ideal mix of the psychoanalysis of Lacan, the material bent of Marxism and the ‘hope’ of Ernst Bloch – but, alas, I can’t seem to convince him.
Of course, all that said, you know who really shouldn’t write a column on unboxing? Russell Smith. At least, that’s the impression I get reading his infuriating and exasperatingly stupid column this week.
I could tell you what the column is about. But then, I’m sure that without even reading the piece, you’ve already guessed its approach: it’s about boys and their toys and how sad it all is. It’s trite, supercilious fluff and takes the classic newspaper columnist approach and decries how ‘everything has gone wrong’ and how we should all shake our heads because, and I quote “oh, come on, every single thing about this is horribly sad.”
Rather than trying to understand the unboxing phenomenon (sorry, throwing out the word ‘fetish’ doesn’t count), Smith simply seeks to pass judgement. Instead of dealing with some of the reasons that cause people to so grossly idolise objects, so lubriciously love their stuff, Smith simply jumps to the part where he essentially tells you that he is not like this.
But not only is it bad writing. By jumping to evaluation, Smith is simply seeking to assert his position of intellectual authority. And while all analytic writing tries to do that on some level, there’s a distinction between clarifying and condescending, between smart, empathetic critique and simplistic condemnation. If you don’t explain why someone should hate something, instead relying on an assumed set of values that prioritises ‘that which came before’, you’re not a writer – you’re just an ass. You focus on judgment and miss any sort of actual analysis.
You might even delineate the distinction by trying to describe his column:
- Descriptive: Russell Smith is a contemporary culture columnist who has written on ‘unboxing’.
- Analytic: Russell Smith’s approach to unboxing reveals that he is invested in maintaining the privilege of ‘the writer’ and ‘the intellectual’ against the increasingly vocal, technophillic masses.
- Evaluative: Russell Smith is a fuckwad.
See how that works? The really useful part is the one in the middle – and it’s the part that Smith missed.
Why am I so worked up about this? Well for one, it highlights the all-too-common approach of non-techie media to ‘geek culture’. Too often, they attempt to understand cultural phenomena outside of the context of late capitalism, postmodernism etc., appealing to their readers’ most basic sense of ‘what is good and right and true’ – here meaning anything from ‘don’t play with toys’ to ‘go and read a book already!’ – to condemn a practice that requires a far more nuanced critique.
But it’s also another attempt to construct a relationship between print and authority, cementing a link between whose opinion counts and the medium it appears on. If the web has disrupted the concept of expertise, then columns decrying the brevity of Twitter, the narcissism of Foursquare, the emptiness of video games etc. are attempts to reassert the link between authoritative publications and authoritative voices. Smith’s column is an example of the very worst, precisely because it fails at doing analysis better than it appears elsewhere, displaying how simplistic analysis and kneejerk commentary have become the domain of print rather than the web.
To be clear, I think unboxing is a strange thing, something that should be criticised, if not occasionally vilified. But what Smith misses is that the loving affection given to the physical object is as much a historical reaction to digitization as it is an insidious effect of capitalist fetishism. Publicly salivating over your new iPhone may be a slightly sick, perverse attempt to recoup wonder; at the same time, it might also be the modern equivalent to ‘the smell of books’ or ‘the feel of paper”: a physical, sensual reminder of the wonder the medium can hold.
And the unboxing of the New Liberal Arts book shows how fetishising the object, when not co-opted by the dehumanising effects of capitalism, can actually bring one into a community, connecting one to others. It’s Penumbra’s fellowship, made manifest.
But, of course, we cannot claim that there is some good in all this newness; we cannot strive to find the hope in the slightly sad, intensely materialistic videos of geeks. We have to find a way to condemn.We have to find a way to instill fear. We have to find a way to reassure our readers that the things they believe still hold true.
After all, we have dead trees to sell.