It's a Wonderful Half-Life
Art by Mike LeeIF YOU'RE READING THIS, YOU PROBABLY own at least one computer, and you probably own at least one box that it came in. Maybe you saved the accompanying supple, elegant, form-fitted polystyrene that kept it fresh and nice as it awaited your purchase. Maybe now you keep the ensemble in a closet or an attic, or in a garage somewhere; or as an end table, or in a storage space rented for just this purpose.
The box, you understand, must be saved for the inevitable day following its warranty's expiration, the day the motherboard has been programmed to die and you must ship it via FedEx slow-pitch to Connecticut or Malaysia for service.
We like our boxes. Boxes make every purchase just that much more Christmas-y.
I learned this last week, when I bought a demo product. Plucked it right off the shelf, stuffed it in a bag, drove it home, set it up, turned it on, and it worked. No mess, no cleanup, no problem.
But something was missing: the packaging. Like an unintended one-night stand, Product and I had gotten too close too soon. I missed the tease of the packing tape; the squintsch-and-squeetsch melody of the polystyrene as the carton dilates slightly, as I reach in and gently guide my Product out into the bright, clean world and slap its behind -- "Welcome, Product!"
Product's product life ends in the purgatory of shelf life, where it awaits afterlife in the form of End-user purchase. At End-user's home, Product's skin of packaging is shed snakelike, releasing Product's spirit into the notoriously vacant soul of the consumer: Product transcends productness and enters the ethers of Lifestyle Accessory.
And its orphaned packaging?
Despite the implied paperlessness of e-mail and e-commerce and such, America's production of solid waste is on the rise. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, almost a third of municipal solid waste is ex-packaging. In 1960, they say, the average American generated 2.87 pounds of trash per day; today it's up to 4.78 pounds -- a 67 percent increase. To put it in a more irritating way, every 30 or 40 days we generate our body weight in landfill-style trash.
However, during the same four decades of the EPA's study, our life spans have increased almost 11 percent, from 69.7 to 76.1 years. (Marketing executives and students of Rush Limbaugh take note: The more trash you generate, the longer you live. Quick -- one of you stick a dollar sign on that.)
Isn't that convenient? After you've put in your 76.1 years, you'll leave your progeny about 66.25 tons of site-specific trash sculpture -- roughly 20 billion tons per 300 million Americans. (And they say art is dead.)
> Polystyrene -- petroleum byproduct muck with lower chlorine levels than PVC, pumped up with CO2, pentane or chlorofluorocarbons -- is used to make such long-lasting necessities as supermarket meat trays, coffee cups, CD jewel boxes and the little petrol-boogers referred to in the pack-biz as "peanuts." (See, they look sort of like Circus Peanuts, the popular artifically banana-flavored treat kids love.) And now, as the folks at Uncle Sam Salutes Styrofoam (www.styrofoam-crafts.com/projects/unclesam.htm) will demonstrate, Styrofoam, America's favorite polystyrene, can be used to build lifelike statues of Uncle Sam. Styrofoam is a trademark of the Dow Chemical Co. and, despite warnings from everyone except Dow, is a healthy part of your diet. (Alternative? Try www.eco-foam.com.)
> Why not pretty up your package now, while you're still young enough to enjoy it? Embalming fluids won't fend off rot more than a week or so. When future generations dig you up, why not confuse them with a blob of silicone or two? Me? I'm compromising with hair transplants -- plugs of hair removed from the front of my scalp and implanted in my upper back. But then, I'm a Libra. QuickTime and/or RealVideo promotional clips are available from the Beverly Hills Institute of Aesthetic and Reconstructive Surgery (www.bevhills .com/audio-video.html). The QuickTime's a 2.5Mb download and rambles on for about four minutes. RealVideo's smaller yet uglier.
> In the last month, two major mummy discoveries in South America have saved millions in advertising for Alphaville Films/Universal Pictures' The Mummy. While you're saving up for tickets to the movie, take a look at "The Virtual Mummy: Unwrapping a Mummy by Mouse Click" (www.uke.uni-hamburg.de/institute/imdm/idv/forschung/ mumie/mumie.en.html), from the University of Hamburg's Institute of Mathematics and Computer Science in Medicine. Here, some of the more interesting (and nicely compressed) QuickTime VR clips you'll find in all the world reveal fascinating relationships between human and landfill. Before delving too deep, note that while mummying imagery is far less grotesque than a good ol' American embalming -- drain blood, fill veins with formaldehyde-adjacent crap, paint skin with "lifelike" makeup and dress up corpse in expensive burial costume so it rots in a most hideous, plasticene way -- this site may be too intense for someone. Most are.
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