credit Meech Marketing Ltd
words Sam Jacob
It’s not as if I crave another ersatz experience, but I wouldn’t mind living a little longer. That, at least, was my soliloquising as I Googled “electronic cigarettes”. After reading a lot of websites that looked likely to be phishing scams, splattered as they were with customer recommendations and special offers, I knew little more than when I started my research. Yet ignorance has never stopped me making a decision, so I went ahead and ordered a starter pack of “Skycig”, with the following promise ringing in my ears: “Skycig smokeless cigarettes are the perfect alternative to traditional cigs.”
“Traditional” cigarettes, of course, are things that embody a particularly mythical kind of experience. That is to say, despite all the associated health risks, I (ridiculously) think that smoking is still cool. I (sadly) love the sensory, tactile sensations, the gestures, the way they make a moment or situation, the way they generate a profound physical and psychological experience. I find girls who smoke more exciting and boys who smoke more interesting. So, of all the things one might try to simulate, the cigarette is a tough call. Not only does it have to dose you with the right amount of nicotine, but it also has to satisfy the existential shapes one throws in the act of smoking.
“You won’t notice a difference, but your body, friends and family will,” says Skycig. So, did I? And did they? Let me start with the box – a matt black plastic thing the size, of course, of a packet of twenty. Graphically blanker than a cigarette packet, it has a retro-futurist aesthetic, a sharp edged gadget-monumentalism that is part John Player Special, part 80s hi-fi and part 2012 Jony Ive. A red LED set into one side reveals that this isn’t just a box but that it does something too: the box is also a charger, a pocket-sized means of topping up your cigarette’s battery.
Flipping open the lid reveals the necessary equipment for your electronic smoking pleasure. Here, set into foam like an assassin’s briefcase are its constituent parts. There are cartridges the size of a traditional filter containing the vaporiser, nicotine and flavouring (choose from traditional tobacco, “Marlboro” or more exotic cherry and vanilla). These you screw into batteries of the same dimensions as the cylinders of tobacco in real cigarettes. Brass fixings connect the two with machined precision. When bolted together they form a slim brassy ring where the heraldic band would have been printed on a traditional cigarette – a surprising return of the real in this desert of simulation.
Sucking on it first feels like sucking though a plastic pipe –which you are. But then something happens, something smokelike flows into your mouth. An irritating peppery sensation hits the back of your throat. And something goes down your thorax into your lungs. Whatever this pseudo smoke is, it is warm and wet like a tropical mist. Its flavour spreads like a blot though your mouth. You exhale and the synthetic fog wafts upwards in curling strands, a stylised vapour trail hanging in the air before vanishing.
As you puff, the tip of the Skycig glows Belisha beacon orange, theatrically fading in and out to mimic the fluctuating combustion of air drawn through a cigarette end. Then it returns to black, back to an inanimate thing, a textured static black plastic disk inserted like a stopper into the end of a tube.
After you’ve been smoking your Skycig for a while, you might find the battery running low. Suddenly that thing that has been pretending to be a hot ember will start to flash. This shouldn’t surprise you. After all, Marshall McLuhan told us a light bulb was pure information – that it is able to communicate both “lit cigarette” and operate as a fuel gauge warning is testament to lights’ advancing performative capabilities and perhaps to our increasing sensitivity to “reading” light.
The Skycig must satisfy the sensation of smoking without being smoking, burn without burning. Its schizophrenic role is to be something while simultaneously not being that same thing. And in this respect it sits alongside many contemporary designed things: artificial sweeteners, low-fat muffins, electric cars (that play the sound of recorded combustion engines), Kindles, computer “desktops” and so on – all things that synthetically remake pre-existing models and experiences through other technologies. These are things whose form and effects – once intrinsically linked by their own architecture – are now formats modelled by other means.
These objects supersede their antecedents yet immediately return a stylised form of the original in the same smooth motion. They are things that are simultaneously forward and backward looking, pieces of history re-enacted through the future. And, of course, that’s why these are the real products of our age – perfect definitions of the present. Perhaps, then, following McLuhan, objects are increasingly not objects but forms of information. The Skycig allows you, for example, to consume the idea of a cigarette without having to consume a cigarette.
So, did I notice a difference? Of course I did. The Skycig isn’t, despite its claims, a simulation of a real cigarette. Instead it’s a different version of smoking, a fictionalised enactment of the sensation of smoking. Like any theatrical performance, a different interpretation of the original is created, a legitimate thing in and of itself.
And did I stop smoking? No. I just took up smoking Skycigs too.