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How Smartphones Became a Global Status Symbol

by IT Desk
0 comment 6 minutes read

By: Vijay GarG 

Today, one consumer product above all others is used to represent our social status — the smartphone. If you want to make a lightning-fast judgement on a person’s personality, job or income, there’s no better indicator.
A ‘status symbol’ is any object which we use to broadcast our social position and economic success to the people around us. At the moment, there’s little question that smartphones are one of the most powerful status signifiers ever created. But things haven’t always been this way. The history of luxury products dates back centuries, and the smartphone is by no means the first piece of tech to assume the role of universal status symbol.
How the smartphone became so dominant as a mark of social standing. To do that, we’ll quickly recap the history of conspicuous consumption technology, and also investigate what the next gadget to gain as much influence might look like.
A Quick History of the Status Product
Consumerism has been linked to social standing for hundreds of years. Owning luxury or expensive products is a convenient way to demonstrate your wealth — it shows you wield significant purchasing power and can afford to buy the best goods available.
In every society, richer people have used their financial power to buy more expensive items. However, it wasn’t until the 19th century that people were first documented as buying more stuff purely for the sake of demonstrating their affluence. The name for such behaviour is ‘conspicuous consumption’, a term invented by an influential economist back in 1899.
At first, conspicuous consumption involved basic goods. Consumers would buy more than they needed to show that they had money to spare. But as it became easier to move between social classes, conspicuous consumption changed. People began seeking out luxury products that were identified with higher classes such as brand name clothes and imported jewellery. These were the first ‘status symbol’ products.
The First Tech Icons
Luxury goods are constantly changing and, initially, the definition of a status symbol was heavily dependent on local culture and taste. But, with increased global trade, that all changed as consumers around the world gained access to the same products. Big-ticket items like cars and, later, technologies like TVs and VCR players became the most influential worldwide status products of the 20th century.
Before the era of the smartphone, other portable consumer products such as personal digital assistants (PDAs) were the ultimate tech status symbol. One of the first and most popular of these was the PalmPilot which originally launched in 1997.
With less than a thousandth the memory capacity of a modern phone, the PalmPilot could only do basic things like store contact info, send emails and manage calendars. Still, owning one of these PDAs was a symbol of status because it demonstrated that the user’s time was valuable and that they could afford to spend hundreds of dollars on a device to help manage their schedule.
The Bluetooth headset was another pre-smartphone status product. Like the Palm Pilot, anyone clipped into one of these gave off the impression that they had a high-powered job. Walking around with an old-school headset on your ear told the world that you were a multitasker, and too important to dedicate all of your attention to something as simple as a phone call.
When compared to the internals of modern consumer devices, the technology found in early 2000s Bluetooth headsets and PDAs looks archaic. And this reveals something interesting about tech symbols — the perception of the device, not the quality of the technology, is what matters when it comes to the status. Taxi drivers now seem to be the only ones still attached to traditional Bluetooth headsets, is this how we know that they’re truly out of fashion?
The Rise of the Smartphone
In the early 2000s, hand-held phones came to occupy the same cultural position that PDAs had before them. One of the most desirable phones of the era was the Motorola RAZR thanks to its eye-catching clamshell design.
But in 2007, everything changed with the release of the original Apple iPhone. As soon as it was announced, the iPhone shot to the position of a status symbol because of its sleek casing, groundbreaking touch-based interface, and hefty $499 price tag.
Even before the iPhone, Apple had a long history of marketing its products to ‘creatives’, and it successfully advertised the iPhone as a product for the discerning tech user. This cemented the phone’s position as a status symbol and drove up sales. To date, over a billion iPhones have been sold.
While Android devices have, in most senses, caught up to their Apple counterparts, they’ve never become status objects in the same way. In fact, no other product is as closely linked to financial wealth as the Apple iPhone. Researchers in 2018 found that, for nearly 70% of people, they were able to determine whether or not someone was a ‘high-income’ earner simply by whether or not they owned an iPhone.
Smartphones have become influential symbols partly because they are super functional. We rely on them for things like navigation, entertainment, and communication. Earlier status symbol phones normally just looked pretty without offering any unique functionality. But these days, the latest smartphones always include new software features, so it’s much easier for consumers to justify buying a smartphone to themselves, even if it’s really all about status.
Refurbished Phones: The Next Status Symbol?
‘Must-have’ products are constantly changing. Often, a status symbol loses its position because it goes obsolete, like the Palm Pilot. And sometimes it happens because a previously expensive item becomes commonplace, like colour TVs.
In short, there’s no question that a new piece of tech will eventually come along to replace the smartphone as a global status symbol, it’s just a matter of when. Some speculate that the next definitive gadget could be wearable, while others think the next status symbol trend could be to use phones without cases, in order to demonstrate that the user thinks of their phone as ‘replaceable’.
But status symbols aren’t always about showing off wealth. For many, reusable bags, eco-friendly vehicles and fairtrade products are their own kind of status symbol. They all demonstrate that the consumer cares about the environmental or social consequences of their actions.
And that’s why the next global status symbol might not be a new product at all, but a used one. Refurbished smartphones are just as functional as new devices but they’re significantly less damaging to the environment. As consumers become more aware that refurbished iPhones work like new, ownership of a reconditioned device the next might well become the next big consumer status symbol.

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