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Unboxing, Teardowns and

Tear Aparts by Greg J. Smith

The above video is a milestone in consumer electronics history: it was the first recording to document the unwrapping of a new gadget that was titled as an unboxing. While individuals have been gleefully ripping open the packaging of their electronics for decades, unboxing is the relatively new practice of recording these moments and uploading them to video sharing services for public display. The 2006 video embedded above features veteran technology blogger Vincent Nguyen as he unpacks a new Nokia E61 smartphone and related accessories. Nguyen removes the device, displays it to the camera while commenting how thin it is, and then dryly lists off the remainder of the objects in the box. On completion he utters "Basically that's it… ummm, for now."

While Nguyen's removal of a smartphone from its original packaging was decidedly drab, unboxing has become a fixture in online consumer electronics coverage. Major players like Endgadget have entire streams of content populated with seasoned technology experts (almost always male) rifling through waybills, wielding box-cutters and carefully extracting shiny new netbooks, gaming consoles and cameras from their packaging. I've watched about three dozen of these videos over the past few days—scanning for signs of intelligent life—and they are remarkably ritualistic: styrofoam is carefully set aside, manuals are flipped through, battery packs are commented on. In doing this field research I've come up with two hypotheses of what unboxing represents:

1. A practice that has emerged as as extension of page view journalism whereby gadget blogs can get traffic without doing any actual 'reporting'.

2. Glib theatre where adults joylessly reenact moments from their childhood when they received and opened gifts.

While both of these readings of unboxing are equally applicable, I prefer the latter, where each of these tiny ceremonies is an act of worship at the altar of technology-induced ennui. However, I think the majority of coverage of this phenomenon simply writes it off as geek porn.

Now, an important question: Can unboxing be elevated to an art form?

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Edwin VanGorder Aug. 13 2010 15:13Reply

The observation on ritualistic unpacking reminds me of The Lost Meaning Of Classical Architecture by George Hersey in which he regards the origins of much of our classic ornament as deriving from animal sacrifices in which the hide was reconstituted over bones as an act of propriation to spirits, and from this he devolopes an etymology for the word trope… the significance for art being obviously that painting of canvas skin on stretcher bones reconstituting the world -were a first siting of the idea of the herm or garlands to spoils or statues that symbolized art attitudes within art….at a time…
But I think more likely the box represents the subconsious, that as Freud put it the "subconsious is like a person not master of their house" No one really knows what is in the box. The first Architectural show on deconstructionism at the Moderm featured many models by the diverse architects that used wrapping paper to symbolize I suppose the packaging process that accrues to "reading " imagery…. divestiture of intellectual baggage and creation of cultural architects and artifacts are an odd trimarine….

Thomas Aug. 14 2010 19:58Reply

To answer the question "Can unboxing be elevated to an art form" I have worked with three performers over the last couple of years to stage unboxing events that are purely abstracted and ritualized. The most recent such event was held at the Viaduct Theater in Chicago on 7/28/10 and a performer from the School of the Art Institute opened a cell phone box and described its contents to the audience. The link below gives you a 115MB download of the the unboxing (the audio is terrible, sorry):


The performer was Lee Blalock.

Greg J. Smith Aug. 19 2010 00:29Reply

@Edwin "No one really knows what is in the box" That line makes me think of 'Kiss Me Deadly' and The Great Whatsit! Perhaps that divine glow is that magic that makes Apple industrial design so alluring (at least at a product launch, before the bugs are apparent).

@Thomas - the video sounds fascinating. I'm downloading it now.

Thanks for posting this Ceci!