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How technology intersects with status signaling

How technology intersects with status signaling
Buying the initial Nintendo kit with R.O.B. and the Zapper was ultimately less useful than acquiring the basic kit with Super Mario Bros. but at least this ridiculous robot toy functioned better as a status symbol.

As much as technologists view their creation of more efficient tools as a democratizing force, new gadgets and apps are always an attractive source for new status symbols

Today we consider air-conditioning units sticking out of apartment windows to be urban eyesores, but in the 1950s they served as status symbols — visual proof that a family could afford an expensive piece of new technology to live in more comfort during summer. But this status value didn’t last long: Air-conditioning became cheaper and more efficient, and its current ubiquity demonstrates how technology can be a democratizing force over time. A one-time luxury good is now commonplace.

When this ethos is extended into a full ideology, technologists often get excited about rationalizing all parts of life — replacing blind customs, irrational rituals, and excess ornamentation with more efficient alternatives. Hence the tech industry exudes explicit anti-status sentiments. Silicon Valley is decisively anti-fashion, tech companies boast about “flat” structures, and executives' conspicuous consumption can be relatively muted compared to their counterparts in finance and fossil fuels.

An anti-status ideology, however, isn’t an actual erasure of status. Wearing Lululemon around Palo Alto is a flex in its own right. But more broadly, technology can’t escape the all-encompassing gravity of status signaling; it quickly gets used by individuals to demonstrate a higher status position. Technology can sometimes serve as an antidote to status marking, but in most cases, new hardware or apps simply provide us with new status symbols. Furthermore technologies tend to diffuse much more smoothly when they harmonize with fashion cycles.

With this in mind, it’s useful to closely examine the complicated relationship between technology and status by looking at how they intersect.

Where Technology Plays a Role in Signaling for Status

1. Technology provides novelties with high signaling costs: Elite status-marking requires the possession of rare, costly items that non-elites cannot easily possess, and new gadgets work well for these purposes. By definition, technology creates something new, and high-tech goods tend to be expensive at the time of market entry. The first black-and-white televisions cost as much as cars. The iPhone, at the time of its debut in 2007, was expensive and not for everyone. Hardware, in particular, works well as a traditional status symbol, but as we saw with the diffusion of Facebook and Gmail, early access to apps can also become an elite signal.

2. Technology provides status symbols with strong alibis: Since technology promises improved efficiencies, every status-marking piece of technology also comes with an alibi — i.e. a reason for possession other than status-marking. An electric car can be an expensive, rare good, but also is energy-efficient and beneficial for the environment. This is not to say that people don’t buy technology for these legitimate reasons, but simply that true efficiencies strengthen their worth as status symbols by making the possessor look detached from signaling.

3. Early adoption of technology demonstrates high-skill and virtues: Experts in any field are quick to embrace new tools that improve productivity. This could be higher-resolution cameras or new graphic design or video editing software. Pagers provided new freedom to doctors in the 1980s who could be “on call” anywhere. These technologies’ associations with high-skilled workers imbue the gadgets with cachet. At the same time, the possession of new technology also suggests a dedication to rationality and efficiency — extremely well-respected virtues of our current age.

4. Technology enables extraordinary performances: New tech often enables experts and virtuosos to perform even better than before, which leads to even more esteem. In the 1960s, surfers embraced shortboards as they opened up the sport to more ostentatious tricks like tube-riding.

Overall, technology does work well as a status symbol, but this is not to say it’s ever the best status symbol. In many cases, new gadgets become associated with high-skilled wage-earning professionals rather than Old Money. With the rise of tech billionaires, however, technology plays a larger role in signaling than before.

How Technology Disrupts Status Signaling

1. Technology is predicated on eventual broad diffusion: Hermès bags will always be expensive and exclusive, because they are created to be luxury goods. Gadgets, on the other hand, first come to market as rare and costly, but over time, they become cheaper and more common. The iPhone no longer marks elite status as it did in 2007. This means any single piece of successful technology inherently has a limited shelf-life as a status symbol, and much of technological progress ends up shortening the initial period of elite status-marking.

2. The technology mindset is anti-ornamentation: Design ornamentation is one of the great canvases for status marking, as some styles are “in fashion” and some aren’t. Anti-ornamentation works to remove these elements, thereby reducing the tendency for material goods to fall into fashion cycles. When this mindset is applied to almost everything in society, there is an overall move away from elitist lifestyle differentiation — e.g. complicated manners, dressing up, attending black-tie events, etc. It’s true that “functionalist” aesthetics often become a status marker in their own right for the professional classes, but the macro effect is equalization.

3. Technology is often “uncool”: Many pieces of technology become anti-status symbols due to exclusive overuse in so-called “geek” circles. Upon its debut, the Segway scooter was novel and expensive, but it quickly took on an anti-cachet, as parodied by Arrested Development’s Gob Bluth and Paul Blart: Mall Cop. Where tech workers move up in the global status rankings based on lifestyles counter to the traditional fashion industry, they theoretically weaken the old system. This doesn’t seem to be happening, however: rignt now we are experiencing a rise of tech wealth and increased interest among middle-class consumers in European luxury brands.

These lists suggest there is no single effect of technology on status signaling, although some of these effects may have a serious long-term impact, especially the anti-ornamentation mindset. Technologists, however, should be careful not to ignore the status implications of their own work, as the creation of status value can serve as an important catalyst for speedy diffusion. Most people aren’t interested in brandishing gadgets or using apps that offer greater efficiencies but are counterproductive in signaling.