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In the mail today comes a flyer for a new bookstore in my area, complete with coupons for 10 per cent off books and music, free coffee and a free CD opener. This last gadget provokes me. It heaps me. It makes me want to have a "user experience." Don’t get me wrong: I am […]

The Politics of Packaging

by David Vest

In the mail today comes a flyer for a new bookstore in my area, complete with coupons for 10 per cent off books and music, free coffee and a free CD opener.

This last gadget provokes me. It heaps me. It makes me want to have a "user experience."

Don’t get me wrong: I am glad they are giving them away for free, despite the fact that I recently paid a dollar for one. It is the need for the device, not its existence, that churns my spleen. It represents the fact that the recording industry cheerfully admits it has designed a product that the average person probably cannot open without a special tool.

It does not work, by the way. I can get a CD open with it, without hurting myself, but I am still left with the ugly, messy and infuriating task of trying to get the magnetic product tape off the plastic jewel case, not to mention the clingy cellophane that sticks to my fingers like the Enron scandal to the Bush administration.

Once this stuff is on you, you can’t get rid of it until you’ve done some really weird hand jive, danced a little dance and made yourself sorry you went anywhere near a music store.

No wonder people prefer to download music off the Internet. For one thing, they can get what they want. For another, it works (most of the time), giving people a more positive experience than they are otherwise accustomed to getting from computers.

The compact disk has a rich history of packaging ineptitude.

At first CDs appeared in long boxes, for display in old record bins at stores slow to re-fit. Of course, people ripped the mainly empty box apart, clawed their way to the CD within, and threw the cardboard away in the parking lot.

Next, they broke the hinges on the jewel case trying to get the little booklet out, but let’s not go there.

Appalled, or at least embarrassed, by all the wasted cardboard, companies did away with the boxes and began selling CDs as a product reduced to the size of the jewel case, at which point people promptly began shoplifting them.

Just as the long box had been designed not with customers in mind but for the convenience of stores, so was the shoplifting solution: the horrible magnetic tape that renders the product not only hard to steal but even harder to open after you’ve paid for it.

A particularly fiendish component of the design is the tiny little "pull here" tab, which serves no purpose other than to mock you and break your fingernails. If you want to get all the stickum off your purchase, prepare to spend some time with a razor blade and perhaps a scouring pad.

Ever tried to drive while opening one of these babies to pop it in the car stereo?

The original metaphor, CDs are LPs, was simply wrong. The new metaphor, customers are thieves and must be punished, is simply vile.

Many people have obviously put up with the indignity. They wanted the music, and CDs were the source of it. A few hardy souls among us demanded that store employees "filet" the CDs before money changed hands.

Employees, however, preferred teaching us to fish to cleaning our fish for us.

"It’s easy," chirped the typical clerk, "you just run the spine down the edge of a counter, like this, crack the whole thing open, no, at the other end, break its little back, see, leaving the magnetic tape intact, take out the disk, throw the case away, and store the disk in this handy thingum we have on sale."

These people grow weary of being asked to open CDs for customers. They have better things to do, like taping the price sticker and the store logo right over the song list or the picture of the artist. The free opener is being distributed for their benefit, not ours.

What does this tell us about ourselves? If we’re thieves who can’t be trusted with music, do they really want to put these CD openers, little box-cutters, into our hands?

What’s the next metaphor? Customers are terrorists? If you don’t think they’re already seen as the Enemy, to be conquered, captured, taken, you haven’t worked on a corporate sales team lately.

Yes, there are some interesting things going on in packaging. The contents are kept air-tight, but the meanings leak out.

It’s not just CDs. I can’t get into bags of cereal anymore either. If I manage to get the cardboard box open without destroying it, the bag inside resists all pulling, tugging, ripping and even teeth-tearing. If I really pull on the bag, with both hands, hard enough to open it, it explodes.

What’s the metaphor here, food’s a bomb? This stuff we eat will blow up in our faces?

On a recent road trip, I bought a pack of cheese and peanut butter crackers. Same thing. The cellophane wouldn’t tear and I couldn’t even bite through it. All this time we’ve been fretting about drivers being distracted by cell phones. We should have been worried about people trying to gnaw through packaging at high speeds.

David Vest writes the Rebel Angel column for CounterPunch. He is a poet and piano-player for the Pacific Northwest’s hottest blues band, The Cannonballs.

He can be reached at: davidvest@springmail.com

Visit his website at http://www.rebelangel.com