Over New Years, I was driving leisurely home from the hardware store after picking up a couple of gate hinges, things that hadn’t appeared in my Christmas stocking. A radio feature was on about something called, “unboxing.”
As I listened, I learned “unboxing” refers to the opening of packages of new products, particularly the latest high-tech gadgets. I’m not as clued in as my pop-savvy wife is, but even she hadn’t heard of it. I had no idea that unboxing had become a phenomenon. The radio talked excitedly about the unboxing videos that have taken YouTube by storm, describing these mini-videos as transformational for themselves and others they’d met.
When I googled “unboxing,” to my amazement I found entire web sites devoted in part or exclusively to the unboxing craze, with articles on people’s experiences and links to a multitude of unboxing events, essentially videos created in living rooms and garages, done ad hoc by average Joes. The question is, why?
The videos feature a single person doing the unboxing, from opening the box to reverently pulling out the product and commenting on each part of the contents. I watched a few just to get the idea. One person opened a new Kindle product. Astonishingly, as the box opened, with the use of special effects a bright divine light shone from inside the box. The only thing missing was an angelic chorus. At the end of his presentation, the young man glowed, hoping his audience had enjoyed the “vicarious experience” of opening his new Kindle.
On another video, a Japanese host offered a much more formal unboxing of a Nintendo’s new Wii U. He stood in a suit behind a table in a stark white room and pulled on a pair of white gloves for what he called, without being facetious, “the ceremony.” The sound effects of cardboard and bubble wrap were amplified. He ended with a deep bow.
These unboxing ceremonies are not done by or paid for by any merchandiser or manufacturer. Their grassroots, subterranean nature is a big part of the attraction for its devoted viewers.
If “the medium is the message” as McLuhan says, then the unboxing must be the sought-for “thing” in this case. Not only are we all desperate to have the latest gadget, but the craving itself is so important to the unboxing devotees that they film the ceremonial unveiling of the product so that the experience can be shared.
The radio program guest remarked with nearly rapt ecstasy how these unboxing videos have created a community among those following a particular brand. I was stunned, on the one hand, at how desperate people are for belonging and where they’ll go to find it, i.e. with anonymous individuals on videos opening boxes of.... new tech stuff. But is this any different than the communities of “friends” we create on popular social networks? Or, is unboxing really so different from the way we engage in the shopping mall gaggles? We all have our own ways of seeking out belonging through virtual communities that offer only transitory fulfillment.
I was also amazed at how overtly spiritual these unboxing experiences are for people, and at how the presentations, whether formal or casual, belie a thirst for transcendence. The positive note here is that this activity, in an odd way, reflects what it is to be truly human. It reveals a God-created norm in all of us: a thirst for the divine. We long for fulfillment and meaning, to be cared for, and to belong to someone.
And if we’re honest with ourselves, most of us will come to the conclusion that this can’t be found in a box. We may even learn eventually that the true source of all these things we long for is ultimately not found in this world, but rather, in a personal God who does want the abundant life for us—a definition of “life” quite different from what unboxing offers.