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THIS IS NOT A TEST with Michael Phillips

“Unboxing” videos – the seventh sign of the apocalypse? – THIS IS NOT A TEST #9 (transcript)

Published February 21, 2015

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I’ve mentioned the lack of heat around here and my…”reluctant” landlord, but I have to report that she caved in and installed not only a new heater but also a new air conditioner. So now when we turn on heat or cold – and we’re at a weird in-between time of year right now when it isn’t unusual to use both in one day – but when we turn it on it’s like a mighty wind of warmth or cold blowing through here like a hurricane. Takes about 10 minutes to cool the place down or heat it up – as opposed to the hours and hours it would take in the past with the meager little puffs of heat or cold trickling out of the vents.

One month this past summer we had a week where it hit 104, 105 degrees for a few days in a row, so we were running the air conditioning around the clock. Our electric bill for that month was $500. The guy who came to measure out the place and prep it for the installation of the new equipment told me the same kind of month next summer should only be about $100. So it’s good news all around. Unless that thing kicks in while I’m trying to record this, which you’ll know because you’ll hear it. Okay, on with the show….

“And I saw in the right hand of him that sat on the throne a book sealed with seven seals. And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, who is worthy to open the book, and to loose the seals thereof? And no man in heaven, nor in earth, neither under the earth, was able to open the book. And I wept much, because no man was found worthy to open and read the book. Then one of the elders saith unto me, Weep not: behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof.”

That’s from the book of Revelations in the bible. Revelations is full to the brim with some real apocalyptic end of the world shit. You would think that the Lion of Judah showing up to open such an important book would be a good thing, but it turns out to be kind of the opposite of a good thing. In fact, it’s like the worst thing that could happen. The seventh seal being opened is the kicker. I mean the six before it are no picnic, but opening the seventh seal opens up the underworld and blots out the sun and the wind so things get pretty ugly. So ugly that they go on to say, “In those days men shall seek death, and not find it. Men will desire to die, but death shall flee from them.” So when people talk about the seventh sign of the apocalypse, it means lights out bitches!

People have been “interpreting” the bible for a long time, and they take special relish in interpreting revelations and predicting the end of the world. Or at least the end of the sinner world and the beginning of the awesome god-fearing/loving world. there were seven signs of the apocalypse and seven seals, though those are really the same thing, but then a dead lamb shows up in revelations around the same time as the Lion of Judah and the lamb has seven horns and seven eyes – seven seven seven – religious people love sevens for some reason. A lot of Jamaicans feared the coming of July 7th 1977 because surely when all those sevens came together on one day, something terrible and dreadful was going to happen. A group called Culture even made a record about it. They called it “Two Sevens Clash,” but it was the same idea.

I can understand why Jamaicans might have felt that way in 1977, because people were gunning each other down in the streets over politics, and it probably did seem like the end of the world was coming fast. It’s like the hysteria we had here over the coming of the year 2000 – when everyone thought all the computers would stop working and planes would fall out of the sky and a lot of religious types geared up for the big whatever. And not just the Hale-Bopp comet nuts who killed themselves to ride off into space with John Travolta or whoever happened to be piloting that ship. Plenty of religious types picked the year 2000, just liked they’d picked previous years, time and time again, going back – forever – and nothing ever happens. Nothing happens on these auspicious dates yet people continue to reinterpret their bibles and pick new dates. When nothing also happens. They get away with that time after time and the believers just say, “Well, yeah, okay, nothing happened this time, but wait until next time! Hoo boy!”

So yeah, the seventh sign of the apocalypse. What is it this time? Unboxing videos? What’s an “unboxing” video you might ask. Well, it’s not exactly a new thing, they’ve been around for years, but if you haven’t ever seen one, it is what it says it is: someone taking a new product and opening the box. While video is rolling. I was going to say, “while filming,” but no one films anything anymore. Video doesn’t even roll…it just hums along. I guess it doesn’t really hum either, unless there’s something wrong with your recorder. Recording anything is now a silent endeavor. Like death.

Anyway, when I first heard of these things I thought, “Oh, I suppose that’s cool, someone demonstrates some new product for you.” But no, there’s no demonstration. It’s just the act of taking the thing out of the box. Not using it. Just laying it on the table and saying, “Well, there it is. Hope you liked this video…please subscribe to my channel for more like it!”

If that sounds insane, that’s because it is. A lot of time in these videos is dedicated showing and describing packaging. To watch someone marvel at the packaging of some gadget is sort of unintentionally entertaining. For a minute. These are mainly the apple people we’re talking about here – they seem to be the biggest box enthusiasts. Just beside themselves at the marvelous aesthetics of the cardboard and plastic. “You can see that they really care about everything, right down to the box!”

Well, yeah. The packaging is part of marketing and you pay for both of those things. When I see an expensive package I’m not astounded at the beauty of it, I just wonder how much I paid for that molded plastic and origami-flapped box. And of course the companies that make these products are hip to the unboxing thing, and they are making their packaging more elaborate to exploit the trend. But I guess the thing that is so odd to me about these videos is that someone would go to the trouble of making one of them in the first place and then stop when the product is out and ready to investigate and mess around with. They should really be called box love videos. But that’s probably already some kind of exotic porn that I don’t know about.

Since the unboxing video is a thing, with some of the videos getting millions of views, clever people have figured out how to leverage and use them to make money. A lot of the things you see on YouTube that you might assume are made by “real people” are really made by companies that spouted up around YouTube when Google started paying video makers a cut of advertising revenue. So most of them aren’t random people taking things out of boxes anymore, but rather one of these video assembly-line joints, or people who make a living off YouTube with all kinds of videos that only happen to include those that feature taking things out of boxes. So it’s part of an established industry, the unboxing video. Yet another industry created by the Internet that we didn’t have 10 years ago and that will be gone ten years from now.

But before the crowd who work YouTube as a job moved in, unboxing videos had to come from regular people. And other regular people had to watch them – in large numbers. That’s what attracted the YouTube pros to the genre. So whatever it is now, its roots had to be in some kind of desire that we have as humans to watch things be removed from boxes. The oldest unboxing video that we know of was made in 1978. You heard that right. it’s grainy black and white video tape of a guy named Ray Glasser narrating the opening of a new Betamax. At 1:30 in the morning. It seems to go on forever, but it’s really only five minutes long. I’ll put the link on the THIS IS NOT A TEST website so you can see it for yourself.

You might assume that because it was made so long ago that Ray’s unboxing video might pale in comparison to a modern one. No no, not so. In fact in a lot of ways, Ray kind of puts the modern unboxers to shame. I mean, he has someone else working the camera for him – a two person shoot! – and he’s opening a Betamax, a machine that no modern day unboxer has ever even seen. But the format of Ray’s tape and a modern unboxing video on YouTube are virtually identical. Ray’s comments could be taken from any gadget unboxing video made last week – “Look how tiny it is!” “Mmm…it smells good.” “There it is – just like in the picture.” “I can’t believe how light this thing is!” Now remember, he’s talking about an industrial Betamax that had to weigh 20 or 25 pounds – then as he’s fingering the buttons he says, “These are all metal…just like the picture.”

Lest you think I’m making fun of Ray, I’m not. I’ll tell you right now that I love getting a new gadget. I don’t love taking it out of the box, but I can understand his excitement. Especially back in those days when a betamax was like a magic kind of thing. I looked up the price for Ray’s model and it cost him the equivalent of $5,400 of today’s dollars, and he doesn’t look like he lives in a wealthy guy’s apartment, so I can see why it was a big deal for him. And why it might have seemed important enough to preserve for future generations on video tape – which this future generation can only see because it was transferred off of that videotape.

So what are unboxing videos? Are they straight narcissism? Bragging? “Look, I have this thing that you can’t get yet and you couldn’t even afford even if you could get it!” That may be part of what drives the viewers. They may be mostly kids who can’t afford the newest, most expensive whatever, and they get a vicarious kick watching someone else open a box they’d like to be opening. But that doesn’t explain the makers of the videos. And it really doesn’t explain things like the “haul” videos that young girls make, detailing their makeup purchases. So why?

Well we don’t have to wonder why. There has been a lot written about the psychology of unboxing, and most of it talks about how our brains work and how humans tend to feel like they’re experiencing things they see. But all of that is so mechanical and biological and to me it doesn’t really explain why we do these kinds of things. To me an unboxing video or someone taking three cans of hairspray out of a CVS bag is more than just biology. I think it might be a way to confirm that we exist. The same way uploading pictures to Instagram or posting a picture of your hamburger on Facebook is confirmation that we exist. It’s a big world, and the overwhelming endlessness of the Internet can make us feel a lot of different ways. But I think for a lot of people it makes them feel insignificant. Or lost.

Posting that picture of a hamburger or a video where you unwrap a bag of cookies might make us feel validated in some way. Like we’re here and we matter. I know that a lot of discussion forums have members who don’t get out much. Whose social lives may be completely online. But forums are communities and people need communities. If your neighborhood thinks you’re just a sloppy weirdo, a forum somewhere will welcome you based on your words and ideas and they won’t care if you’re a sloppy weirdo because they don’t have to see you or smell you.

And if I’m talking about all of this like I’m somehow above it, I’m not. I’ve been typing my opinions into the void of the Internet for 20 years, so I know what it’s all about. And I’m as guilty as anyone of using the Internet world for validation. It’s not my ONLY world, since I go to an office every day and interact with other Internet nerds and grocery store clerks and people who work at hardware stores and ask if they can help me find something when they know that they probably won’t be able to find it because they really don’t know exactly where anything is.

But Internet communities often have a shelf-life. The bigger they are the more quickly they become unusable. Aside from the Bukowski forum I mainly use Google+, which everyone immediately compared to Facebook when it was launched. It wasn’t Facebook, but the nerds at Google were definitely trying to take a bite out of Facebook’s dinner. But when it was getting started, and even now to a lesser extent, Google+ didn’t compare to Facebook. It wasn’t a competition, they were different. Google+ was populated with nerds and early adopters and the discussions were generally much better that what you can find on Facebook. Not saying Facebook is dumber or Facebook users are dumber, it’s just numbers. If you throw a party and invite 20 smart, cool people and that party will be quite different than, I don’t know, a large family reunion or city council meeting or something, where the guest list isn’t selective.

You wouldn’t invite your survivalist uncle who is convinced that President Obama is a Muslin to your cool people party, but he’s sure as hell going to be at the family reunion – and the city council meeting. You wouldn’t invite your 15 year old cousin from Topeka Kansas who thinks she’s a member of Wu Tang Clan. But she’s going to be at the reunion, along with your religious grandmother who is always blessing you and sending you inspirational cartoons and newspaper clippings. She’s going to be at the reunion too. And she’s on Facebook. And therein lies the problem with Facebook – or any very large network or community. If it feels dumb at times it’s only because most people seem dumb sometimes – all of us – and most people are on Facebook.

But everything on the Internet – or anywhere in the world that people congregate and discuss things – degrades in the same way the more mainstream it gets. I’ve talked about usenet before, which was basically a geek version of Facebook without any pictures. Imagine Facebook or most of the Internet really, without pictures and video. Most people’s Facebook pages and Instagram and accounts may seem narcissistic because we’ve made it easy to post pictures. On usenet or even further back, on a BBS – and even in discussion forums until pretty recently – if you wanted to take part in the festivities you had to do it with your words. You couldn’t just upload a picture of your cat and hashtag it #adorable.

So if your survivalist uncle or Jesus loving grandmother showed up in one of those text-only, you’re-judged-on-your-ideas kind of networks, people would probably ostracize them very quickly and they’d get frustrated and go away. Or become trolls, like we talked about last week. But on a modern social media site they can post pictures of Jesus and Obama and if the audience is large enough, they’ll find some kindred spirits who will not only validate their weird delusions, but encourage them.

And like I said, I think that’s all any of us are looking for. Someone to say, “Yeah, you’re right!” instead of giving us a screwface or laughing out loud when we blurt out our weirdness for everyone to hear. That’s why I think the people who say that technology is making us anti-social are missing the mark in the really broad sense. Yes, on the surface we’re more anti-social because most of us are usually looking at our space phones when we’re out in public anywhere. But I really think that fascination will eventually go away – I know it will – and we’ll use the things as they were intended to be used – as tools, like a hammer or a weed whacker, and we’ll start looking at each other again when we’re out to dinner together.

If you think about it, the people who stare at their phones when you’re waiting for an elevator together weren’t going to talk to you anyway. And if they did it would be one of those pointless and ridiculous “social” conversations that we’re so good at. “Jesus christ, it’s hot out there!” “Yeah, boy, I can’t remember when it’s been this hot!” I’ve had these conversations with people I work with every day. People who I’ll sit in a room with for an hour talking about some project or another. But when we get outside of those office doors there’s nothing to say and it’s all about the weather. That’s just how it is. People get uncomfortable standing around each other silently. Silence anywhere makes people uncomfortable. Try being around someone and not saying much. It freaks them out.

It might even be that these online “relationships” that we nurture so incessantly now will make our face to face relationships stronger. Maybe we will value them more, and appreciate them more now that we have this alternate universe to compare them to. Maybe we will carry on, despite the end of the world coming soon. Even if that means carrying on with our weather conversations and our Facebook hamburger pictures or complaining about a Ped Egg that doesn’t work right in a Ped Egg forum somewhere. I suppose none of it is the seventh sign of the apocalypse, or even a sign that we’re devolving somehow. but then again, who knows. real change in human behavior usually happens so slowly we hardly recognize that it’s happening.

Now I’m about to change my behavior and end this. Next week? The interview with Mat Gleason that I teased last week is still going to happen, but you probably won’t hear that next week. This weekend Carol and I will be recording some poems for Hosho McCreesh. I think he says osho but it’s spelled like Hosho. The first H is silent. He should make both H’s silent and be oso. I have to get some silent letter action going in my name. It’s too normal, I think. Well if you haven’t read any of Hosho’s poetry – and I can only assume that a lot of you listening to this have never read any poetry – you really should. I’ll put a link to him on the site so you can click on it and go visit him. In cyberspace. I don’t read much modern poetry because there isn’t much modern poetry that’s worth reading. But Hosho is different. He cares about words and rhythm and being human, and all of that makes for a good poet, ya dig? Anyway, he’s having a lot of different people read poems from his latest book for some kind of project…an audio book or something. Something in cyberspace no doubt.

Remember when we used to say “cyberspace”? and “surfing the web,” or “information superhighway”? Yeah. Next time you think you’re cool, just remember talking to your mother and trying to explain “cyberspace” and how awesome “surfing the web” was. That’ll put you in your place.

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