You could be forgiven for seeing the iPhone as a functional and practical acquisition. The phone, after all, has revolutionized how we take pictures, order food, sign up for an exercise class, read the news, listen to music, communicate across thousands of miles through FaceTime and wait, as if reading tea leaves, as we watch the ellipses between exchanges with a new romantic partner. With each release of a new version, Apple makes its previous technology antiquated in mere seconds, thus shaming many of us to upgrade.
For millions of us, the many capabilities of the iPhone make dropping several hundred dollars to acquire one seem reasonable. We are lulled into the price — Apple has done a good job getting us used to seeing the iPhone as an affordable and useful good. The price has gone up iteratively with each new version. For a while, with certain contracts, AT&T offered the iPhone for $199. In recent years, the iPhone has crept over $500 but one can lease the latest version for what seems like a small monthly payment (although, it sure adds up). Also, everyone seems to have one. Statistically, of course, this isn’t true, and technically the Android is more popular by sheer numbers. But the cult of the iPhone and what it signifies about its owner makes it one of the most defining cultural objects of the 21st century.
Because we rely on our phones for so much of modern existence, people are seen clutching them like bars of gold going to and fro their daily activities. People FaceTime while walking down the street. On any given evening at a restaurant, six phones will lay on a table at what is an otherwise civilized dinner. “Swipe” is a word in everyone’s daily lexicon. Ten years ago, these types of behaviors would have looked truly insane, today they are the omnipresent reminders of the iPhone.
The iPhone became a democratic luxury good despite its exorbitant cost. Wealthy bankers own them alongside hourly workers. The phone appeals across demographics, class, occupation and geography.
The iPhone X, however, is a return to luxury status. By simultaneously unveiling the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus (at $699 and $799, respectively), the $999 iPhone X is set apart, not simply in cost but also in the fact that it does not offer any meaningful additional utility than the iPhone 8 line. Sure, the iPhone X is bigger. (Though the 8 Plus already appears as weighty as the Guttenberg Bible.) The iPhone X has a few extra tricks and gadgets but none that justify the cost. (Fancier emoji, or “animoji”, do not count.) Also button-free feels like more trouble than its worth. (Have you ever tried to swipe with cold hands?) Infrared face scanning is nifty (and slightly disconcerting) but is this necessary when we already have Touch ID?
With the demarcation between the iPhone 8 version and the iPhone X, customers are now genuinely making a choice to buy something that is rarer and pricier than any other phone. Even the marketing choice to call it the iPhone X is an exercise in status branding. Rather than calling it the iPhone 9, which they’ve skipped over, or 10, which would follow the normal numbering pattern, they’ve branded it with a grand Roman numeral X.
In 1899, Thorstein Veblen wrote The Theory of the Leisure Class, a scathing critique of the idle rich of his time. These wealthy folks showed their status through “conspicuous consumption” — that is, the material goods that offered no additional utility than less expensive versions. Fine china and silver spoons are examples in contrast to simple ceramic dishware or aluminum flatware, which work just as well. In the late 20th century, economic status was revealed in this spirit: flashy cars, designer Rolexes, red-heeled stilettos and fancy handbags.
While people still conspicuously consume, the general post-Recession trend amongst the rich suggests less spending on material goods and more on retirement, healthcare and experience-driven services that essentially improve quality of life. Piano lessons, Pilates classes and organic food are hallmarks of elite modern consumption. According to the government’s Consumer Expenditure Survey, the top 1% households are spending less on conspicuous consumption than they were 20 years ago. Today, the rich spend much more on education, musical instruments and domestic services than any other income group.
The iPhone X is a bet on a return to the wealthy habits of yesteryear — not simply the oligarchs and plutocrats and private jets and Bentleys, but rather the top 1% as a whole plonking down basically a grand on something that offers status but not significant extra utility. Veblen would have likely abhorred and admired the audacity of selling the iPhone X at the exact same time as the iPhones 8 and 8 Plus, for a wildly different price.
But I am not so sure this will work with today’s elite consumers. For many of today’s rich, overt materialism is eschewed for artisanal, and luxury goods are subtle — Volvo SUVs, organic cotton and made in Brooklyn chocolate. These things cost money but they are blanketed in values around quality, environmentalism and supporting local markets. The iPhone X feels out of touch with these consumer values and the larger societal concerns around inequality and a culturally divided country. There was something ironically egalitarian about the iPhone and its ubiquitous appeal. The iPhone X is overtly and unapologetically opulent. For today’s elite, an outdated iPhone might be the new status marker — that is, unless their lease makes an upgrade just too irresistible.