Conspicuous consumption and the iPhone X

apple / culture


Tech pundits occasionally suggest that some gadget purchases are driven by conspicuous consumption. In this view, a device like the iPhone X serves as a status symbol—a way to assert that you have (and can afford) the best.

This mindset is completely alien to me. Does anyone actually want to broadcast their buying decisions in this way? Both my wife and I hail from lower-middle-class families, for whom frugality is a (perhaps the) prime virtue. We pinch our pennies, drive our cars until the wheels fall off, and fix things ourselves—even when we’d be better off hiring an pro.

This thrifty mindset extends to gadget purchases. Our tribe takes pride in not carrying the latest and greatest devices. From that perspective, the so-called “stagnant” design of the iPhone 6, 6s, 7, and 8 was actually quite appealing. Toss that device in a case, and no one else could tell if you were rocking a three-year-old handset (nice!) or a brand-new device (for shame).

Not so with the iPhone X. Between its bezelless screen, dual camera, and unmistakable notch, Apple’s flagship is easily identifiable. Even someone who’s only casually familiar with Apple’s handset lineup can pick the X out of a crowd of devices.

This “recognizability” was a reason I considered avoiding the iPhone X. A device this expensive serves as a negative status symbol among our friends and family. Most people know by now that the X is the “thousand-dollar phone.” Owning it sends adverse signals about your character; others may think you’re either flaunting your discretionary cash, or that you’re spending your hard-earned money foolishly.

So, given the choice, I’d prefer inconspicuous consumption over status shopping. Give me gadgets that feel luxurious but don’t look luxurious. I’d rather buy my iPhone in a cavernous, filthy, fluorescent-lit, bargain warehouse than the glass-walled, immaculate boutique of an Apple store. ■