London: It’s not quite as bad as we feared: Sealed Air, the company in New Jersey that makes bubble-wrap, is not yet discontinuing poppable bubble-wrap. But non-poppable bubble-wrap, surely spells the end for the real thing: it’s cheaper to ship, because it leaves the factory airless and thus can be “flat-packed.” The companies who receive it will need to buy an expensive pump to fill the reams of polythene with air, and that air will be beyond the popping power of human fingertips.
Panic broke out among the bubble-wrap-popping millions across the globe on hearing the news earlier this month. The pastime is adored. Just thinking about it produces a pleasurable sensation and a longing to hear the release of the circle of trapped air, which makes you desperate to pop the next one.
If it is discontinued, how will we get our popping kicks? There will still be poppable seaweed, and for teenagers poppable pimples, and for rich people poppable caviar, but you’ll never again be able to pop in affordable bulk as you do now with any postal delivery of a breakable item. There are plenty of virtual bubble-wrap-popping games online but they’re not as satisfying as the real thing, because the fingers can’t feel it. The question is: why do we love to pop?
It has been suggested by scientists that it’s an ancestral addiction, triggering memories of the insect-squishing done by our ape ancestors. We like the moment when the victim resists and then surrenders. Many of my favourite addictions involve destruction: I pick privet leaves as I walk past houses, destroy them and relish the sensation. I yank the seeds off grasses and I love stamping on windfall crab-apples. In a small way, it’s power.
I accept that sex is one thing and popping bubble-wrap definitely another, but are the two distantly related? There’s a cultish phenomenon called ASMR — “autonomous sensory meridian response” — which is defined as “the distinct, pleasurable tingling sensation in the head, scalp, back or peripheral regions of the body in response to stimuli”. It has also been defined as a “brain orgasm” produced by certain sensations. Eleven million people have watched a YouTube video of a blonde woman tapping her nails against the back of a wooden hairbrush, and running her nails gently along the bristles.
We need releases for our nervous energy, and resistance-followed-by-surrender sensations do seem to work.
Switching on a 1970s television required you to turn a knob, feel the resistance, and then feel and hear the click of surrender. What’s more, you definitely knew the television was on, unlike nowadays when silent jabbing of the remote button often produces no result. So many clicks and clunks of our youth are no more: the loud click of the typewriter, the ringing click of a bus-ticket machine, the clunk of a slam-door train. All of these were releases for pent-up energy.
We still have vacuum-packed bliss to enjoy: snipping open a packet of Lavazza and feeling the softening of the foil as the air enters; hearing the “ah” of air on opening a new tin of tennis balls; piercing the pristine film on a jar of Nescafé with the tip of a sharp knife; unscrewing the lid of a tube of tomato puree, reversing it and sinking the point down into the foil at the neck.
Computer manufacturers know that we crave delicious sensations: hence the flying-balls-of-paper sound when you press the “Empty Trash” button, and the card-shuffling sound when you start a game of smartphone Patience. More and more things that used to make delicious noises have gone quiet in our touchscreen world. Cameras don’t click, so you’re not sure you’ve taken the photo. You press the office pass against a panel, causing doors to slide open: this is not a patch on the key, the click and the slam. The only new everyday noise I’ve noticed is that of tourists dragging pull-along suitcases through St Pancras International, but this can hardly be said to produce any kind of brain orgasm.
By arrangement with the Spectator