Feel the Quality: The haptic economy of unboxing videos on YouTube.

Feel the Quality: The haptic economy of unboxing videos on YouTube.

Fresh (well, not so fresh) back from AoIR16 in Berlin, I thought I would take a moment to upload my presentation from this year’s conference. This is the second ‘instalment’ of my (ongoing) work that explores the haptic economy of smartphones. In a piece of impeccable timing (thanks to the special issue editors) the first instalment of this work was published in First Monday the week of the conference.


Feel the Quality: The haptic economy of unboxing videos on YouTube.

In my presentation to this conference last year, it was the everyday rhythms of smart phone use that occupied my attention. But the smart phone is not always an object of the everyday. Before our smartphones become part of our everyday routine, there is a point when they appear to us for the first time – as something unknown, something less than familiar, something approaching magical.

In this paper, I switch my attention to our first interactions with these devices. My primary frame of reference here will be Marxist writings on labour and commodity fetishism, (and I am indebted to our Chair, Andrew Herman, for guiding me onto this critical path).

I also draw on the work of Peter Pels and the anthropologist Alfred Gel. These reference points are brought to bear on a dataset that comprises sixty videos taken from YouTube, all of which feature the unboxing and ‘first touches’ of a newly available smartphone.

My chief argument is that these unboxing videos performatively remediate commodity fetishism. Particular generic conventions and styles of presentation serve to manufacture desires, while simultaneously veiling particular social relationships. This revealing/obfuscation dyad is achieved primarily through a tactile engagement with technology in these videos: representing what we might call a process of haptic ‘reification’.

It is to these videos that I now turn.

Unboxing videos are sub-genre of product reviews that document the user/reviewer’s first interactions with a new product. First appearing in the mid 2000s, by 2008 unboxing videos were scoring high on Google’s list of most popular video searches. Today, the unboxing genre has become an economy in its own right with professional reviews sitting alongside those of amateur fanboys (for the genre is heavily dominated by men) eager to show off their latest toys.

While there are differences between individual videos, a set of generic conventions are clearly visible. The main part of the review will almost always feature the product in the middle of the screen, often on a neutral background. Mostly the reviewer remains off-camera, save for their hands, which appear from the bottom of the screen and which often interact with the phone from this position. Other generic conventions include the evaluation of the device against previous versions or models, the haptic evaluation of the phone, and of course there’s the actual unboxing of the device, as well as the removal of the plastic that protects the phone screen during shipment.

So important is this last element that one viewer comments on YouTube that “Peeling plastic off a new phone is like reaching an orgasm for nerds”. This reference to the erotic dimension of unboxing videos leads me nicely (if somewhat inaccurately) to Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism. I say inaccurately because of course Marx was not using the term ‘fetish’ in the Freudian sense to connote a sexual impulse or desire.

For Marx, the fetish connotes the ascription of particular qualities, of particular powers to a commodity. In volume 1 of Das Capital, he appropriates studies of religious objects of devotion, in order to define the role of the fetish and to illustrate the relationship that is formed between commodities and consumers. I do not have time here for a detailed summary of the commodity fetish. However, in lieu of a full exposition, allow me to identify some of the most salient points of this concept:

The commodity fetish both describes and embodies the shift in relations that take place when an object of human labour becomes a commodity. These shifts occur as the producer of the commodity becomes atomised – an expendable cog in the ‘machine’ of industry – and where the social relations between labourers –  between people – become severed, or at best, hidden.  As Marx asserts:

The actual process of production, […] gives rise to new formations, in which the vein of internal connections is increasingly lost, the production relations are rendered independent of one another, and the component values become ossified into forms independent of one another’. (48)

The now ubiquitous method of producing technologies, involving global supply chains, repetitive piece-work and multi-sited production schedules serves of course to atomise workers, not only from that which they are producing, but (perhaps more importantly) from each other. As Marx famously wrote, “a commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour

Thus, the commodity, presented to us, no longer represents social relations between people, but instead “as material relations between persons and social relations between things.” Unboxing videos serve to illustrate the commodity fetish at the same time that they produce a fetish out of the commodity. These videos are not just instructional but also reverential. The author of the video imbues the phone with meaning, but also with a sense of wonder – as if it were a magical object with its own power.

Thus the summaries of a phone’s functions and capacities are regularly punctuated by the emotional responses of the reviewer to the phone’s shape, feel, design and build. It is not uncommon to hear exclamations of pleasure and joy, of gasps and sighs of satisfaction in these videos. Responses that move the review beyond the realm of scientific objectivity, into an altogether more affective register.

In his reading of the fetish, Peter Pels (1998) suggests that it is this wonderment that serves to animate the fetish, and unboxing videos capture such moments of astonishment and wonderment – documenting as they do, an initial encounter with new technology and the affective responses it generates in the reviewer.

This wonderment also echoes Alfred Gell’s (1992) assertion that “the enchantment of technology is the power that technical processes have of casting a spell over us so that we see the real world in enchanted form” (163).

In this reading, technology is positioned as “something which has been produced by magical means” (166). Meanwhile, and contrasting this wonderment, Gell remarks that all too often “the actual artist or craftsman is quite effaced in the process, and moral authority […] accrues entirely to the institution responsible for commissioning the work” (173).

This articulation of wonderment, twinned with the effacing of the labourer, speaks to the very heart of commodity fetishism, displacing social relations between people, and instilling a ‘false’ set of relations between object and individual. The labour that has gone into the production of the commodity is hidden in favour of an understanding of the object as an object free of such ties to production.

Such freedom from human labour is exemplified in the advertising for new phones, which regularly depict devices floating in the air, exploding and reassembling and slowly rotating, as if moving under their own energy. This apparent autonomy of the commodity is central to Marxist understandings of the fetish, where (to quote Pells once more) “the thing’s materiality itself is supposed to speak and act; its spirit is of matter” (Pels, 1998: 94).

The conventions of the unboxing genre, the rituals of unboxing, unwrapping, switching on, examining, evaluating, touching, squeezing, pressing – are integral to the maintenance of this belief. And this is why I see touch – specifically the unboxing and the handling of the phone – as important to this genre of video, and to the remediation of commodity fetishism.

In a world where touch has been central to the consumer experience, the rise of digital purchasing poses a conundrum. How do we ‘feel the quality’ and evaluate commodities if we cannot touch them?

This problem predates Internet shopping and home-shopping channels rely heavily on close-up shots of hands holding, caressing, modelling and fiddling with all manner of commodities. Unboxing videos build upon a similar mode of haptic evaluation. While the reviewer talks almost continually throughout their review, what we see are their hands –  opening the box, taking out its contents, evaluating the phone’s heft and feel and moving it around in their hands. The verbal evaluation of the device cannot be separated out from the haptic experience of it.

And that experience is always positioned as the ‘first touch’. It appears as if it is the first time the phone has been touched… the phone comes to us, shiny and new. Seemingly untouched by human hand. This is what we have come to expect from technology. This is what helps the illusion of technology’s autonomy take hold – the illusion that the phone exists independently of the factories that produced it; that it exists independently of the many hands that were involved in its production. That it exists independently of the many hands involved in sourcing the raw materials for its transistors and chips and batteries. This illusion of autonomy – of independence – severs the link between the phone and its contexts of production. The ritual of unboxing a new phone legitimizes the reviewer as (be)holder of new technology, while simultaneously delegitimizing all those involved in its production.

It is with dark irony then that we learn of explosions in Chinese factories, where workers have died or been injured by the solvents they were using in the final process of phone production – that process being the removal of any trace of human hand from the screens and backs of our new objects.

Unboxing videos serve to position the smartphone as a commodity to be worshipped in the manner of a fetish. Through various codes and conventions of representation, these videos remediate the reification of technology today, serving to occlude the social relations involved in its production, while simultaneously instilling within that technology a sense of independent, almost divine, will.

The hands of the reviewer performatively produce this reification, acting as the first ‘legitimate’ hands to receive the commodity. Both the review and the reviewer act as a conduit between the device and us, the audience – akin to high priests who mediate between God and congregation. Indeed, staying with this religious simile, in the unboxing video, we witness the transubstantiation of technology – as it shifts from being a product of someone’s labour, to an object of our desire.