Heaven Sent

SkyMall, just how much innovation is too much

Text by Peter Lyle

Illustrations by Olivia Meier

From above, the Earth always tends to look serene. Busy roads, big rivers, airport terminal buildings: the most churning, frantic scenes from our daily lives become quite different when seen from the air. If we were closer we would see dirt, despair, death and danger, but from the window of a plane, it all looks picturesque and peaceful. Funny, then, that one of the most compelling onboard alternatives to the view outside, if you happen to be on a US domestic flight, is a magazine that often appears to be dedicated to making life on Planet Earth seem an even more complex and hazardous place than you remembered.

The magazine is SkyMall. Browse the current issue, or search the online catalogue at skymall.com.

The Nano-UV Disinfection Scanner ($59.99), kills everything from bedbugs to dust mites you didn't even know existed. For another $100 you can have the Nano-UV Wand - "Simply pass the wand over any area for 10 seconds and you're done", like some Gandalf of germ genocide. In a directional bright orange tub at $24.99 is Cyber Clean. The "high-tech cleaning compound" for cleaning anything from the insides of your shoes to the surface of your keyboard. "Cyber Clean isn't a spray and it's not a sponge. It's a high-tech malleable compound that picks up crumbs, dust and other loose debris from any device on contact. No rubbing is required."

It isn't just the dirt you cannot see that SkyMall equips you to take on confidently. Currently, I covet the $39.95 Target Alarm Clock, which solves the problem of walking over to switch your alarm clock off and then returning to sleep. I don't have that concern, but still want the solution:

When the alarm sounds, a target flips up.

To make it stop or snooze, the sleeper must sufficiently awaken, grab the laser gun and hit a bull's eye. Includes two other shooting games for target practice.

Clock is white plastic, 5-1/2" square and 3"H.

Requires 6 AA batteries (not included).

There is the Beltblaster Amplifier, which clips round your waist and is attached to your iPod, so now you can have that "mini PA system" where you always wanted it, right above your crotch.

Solutions for problems you didn't know you had: is how the unique spirit of SkyMall characterises itself. For two decades, the company's magazine (seen by 90 per cent of America's domestic passengers, half a billion annually) has become a dependable meme in the country's popular culture. From pop music tributes to chatshow riffs and mentions on shows like The Simpsons and How I Met Your Mother, SkyMall, its titles and product descriptions serve as ready-made cheap jokes that do all the work for you. And others have looked deeper, as far as you can do without sounding absolutely ridiculous.

In 2006, award-winning author and environmental journalist Bill McKibben wrote an essay about the catalogue as an index of out-of-control consumer culture, arguing, "To browse its pages is to understand the essential secret of American consumer life: That we've officially run out not only of things we need, but even of things we might plausibly desire."

For Salon.com in 2007, Rob Rosenbaum's article "Where The Wings Have No Shame" (a title lifted straight from a special dish "for eating chicken wings") asked, "What's SkyMall culture really about?" Though it was the chicken dish that inspired Rosenbaum to ponder the meaning of SkyMall, it was the number of special chronographs and other timing technologies that provided another clue. Rosenbaum wrote:

"The appeal of watches in SkyMall country has something to do with the notion of death - of your time running out. When one is up in the air, however familiar, on some limbic level of the brain, one is aware of how absurd it is to be suspended eight miles high in a metal container, only some poorly understood laws of physics keeping you from plunging abruptly  to certain death."

Our discombobulated sense of mortality, he suggested, is what makes us feel exposed in-flight, and vulnerable to SkyMall's problem-conquering, confidence-boosting gadgetry. Two years later, the New York Times Style section revisited the phenomenon in less existential mode, pointing out that the recession had seen a swing in sales towards products that were actually useful and straightforward. It also spoke to the company's president, Christine Aguilera, who said she didn't mind if people enjoyed those products for their "comical, whimsical" value, before insisting they valued them more.

In explaining the enduring appeal of SkyMall during a recession, Aguilera argued that its appeal lay not in our fears and vulnerability, but to the hope and faith her country still has in the future, despite tough times. Sounding like some Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur rather than the vendor of 101 wacky accessories for pets, Aguilera told the NYT, "What is recession resistant is innovation," adding, "Philosophically, Americans like to have new products, they like to have things the neighbours don't have." You might laugh at a crazy new insect-killing device featured in the catalogue, "But when you are standing eye to eye with a giant spider, you will be thankful you bought the Keep Your Distance Bug Vacuum."

I like Aguilera's optimistic analysis as much as the "fear of death" and "consumerism's last hurrah" polemics, but I am a sucker for useless gadgets. Some years ago, I bought a "Bug Zapper" at an electronic store. A little plastic yellow tennis racquet with a mesh of interlaced wires instead of strings. Pressing the button, the wires surge with a dramatic electric charge. My girlfriend laughed at me when I bought it home. But when we found a bug in our exotic holiday villa, this purchase earned a new level of respect. It really was The Future; she just hadn't been visionary enough to see it.

There is something in Aguilera's analysis of gadget-love that expresses the American capacity for faith in a better future, as a symbol of an optimistic culture. Since the 1986 Challenger shuttle disaster and the end of the Cold War, the space race and the emotions it harnessed have become distant memories. With the big-dreaming, future-loving space ideals now in the past, American gadget-love is all that remains of the Jetsons-style 1960 vision of a better-designed fun world.

The joy of rifling through a catalogue of unnecessary items is valuable. However wasteful and self-indulgent it seems, it is also a test of our ability to feel wonder and excitement, to be childlike and open to possibility. I love the fact that a friend recently took a US domestic flight and was so taken with the catalogue he brought it home with him. I love that SkyMall's founder, Bob Worsley was destined to be an accountant until he found a Giftmasters catalogue in the seat pocket in front of him. His new career was set in motion.

In Britain, the Innovations catalogue, Product lust is stupid and irresponsible, but there is also something life-affirming about it. To never be susceptible to a silly gimmick again would be like never feeling the electric shock of idiotic, unconquerable lust again  which was bundled with weekend newspapers, was the closest to a SkyMall. An Aladdin's cave of whimsy and technology for every part of the home, garden and kennel that was a dependable shortcut to mildly snobbish cheap laughs. Before Innovations, I would pore endlessly over playsets, spaceships and action figures for months before Christmas in the Argos catalogue, terrorising my parents with an ever-evolving list of demands. Before that, there were the pages of classified ads for X-Ray specs, Sea Monkeys and other magical wonders that I would lap up in American comics. As I approached puberty, I managed to transfer some of this toy lust to the lingerie and nightwear sections of hulking pre-internet mail order catalogues like Kays. As with SkyMall, we really weren't sure how the dazzling mysteries on the pages worked or exactly what we would do with them; we just coveted them and all their reassuring, tidy perfection. To gaze at a catalogue is to say yes. To look covetously is to feel desire. To feel desire is to feel alive.

Like the regular kind, product lust is stupid and irresponsible, but there is also something life-affirming about it. To never be susceptible to a silly gimmick again would be like never feeling the electric shock of idiotic, unconquerable lust again. Admirable, in a Buddhistic, self-possessed manner, but miserable in terms of enjoying life in our sad consumerist capitalist system: Just Say No.

Some of the most interesting left-wing thinkers of the 20th century critiqued classical Marxism's ideas that mass-production leads to alienation and that "value" in human relations to their environment is something that can be defined in purely functional economic terms. Walter Benjamin endlessly catalogued objects he saw and collected, from children's toys to stationary, and wrote about the quasi-religious "aura" of the authentic, handmade artwork - something manufacturers were already becoming adept at cultivating in their own creations. Jean Baudrillard wrote about the "language of objects", of the way the mass-produced things we bought and owned had come to mean and speak to us about much more than just function - about emotion, pleasure and meaning itself.

Boasting how little you buy is annoyingly hip, and the recession has made it increasingly easier to be nostalgic about unnecessary objects. General household stores, DVD and CD stores, book stores, camping stores, even lingerie stores - Britain's biggest retail names are dropping like flies. Brands are more concerned about Facebook friend numbers than whether there are still shops to sell their goods. The various forms of modern-retro style and modern vintage prevalent in fashion, music, food, design and folk cultures already speak of a nostalgia for the 20th century as a golden age of mass-produced objects.

"Solving life's little problems, one App at a time" might have been a perfect line for Innovations or SkyMall previously. Today, it is a reminder of how the cult of the cloud is overtaking our lives. Recently, several friends have been clearing their lofts of CDs and DVDs in a spring-cleaning frenzy. This is admirable: adulthood often seems to be about encumbering yourself with unnecessary belongings, and relinquishing most of it would be tremendously freeing. Their gadget lust and related budgets are absorbed by annual upgrades of their smart phones and iPads, for prosaic promises of higher resolution and greater memory. In a world of Spotify, iCloud, YouTube and digital channels repeating shows endlessly, these friends insist they don't need or use the stuff they have accumulated over the years, so won't miss any of it. I am sure they are quite right on the first point. §


  • Heaven Sent