Think back (if you’re old enough) to when very few people had cell phones, back when they were huge and expensive. When you picture someone using one of those cumbersome early cell phones, whom do you picture? Is it a white guy in a suit, maybe wearing a Rolex and 1980s sunglasses? Yeah, I thought so. When they first came out, cell phones—like pretty much every brand new, expensive technology—were status markers. A cell phone said, “I am wealthy, I am powerful, and I am so important that people must be able to reach me even when I am away from my home or office.”
Cell phones got smaller of course, and less expensive, and more common. Elites were saved, however, by the arrival of the touchscreen smartphone. Though not as pricey as the first cellular phones, the first iPhones were still expensive and hard to get; even with a $499 price point and a mandatory two-year contract with AT&T, people stood in line at Apple stores for hours to get their hands on one. The iPhone became an instant status symbol in 2007—but fast-forward to 2013, and what now? There’s roughly a zillion different touchscreen smartphone models on the market. The iPhone itself is available on all four major US carriers (without unlocking); from three feet away, a brand new $849 iPhone 5 is pretty much indistinguishable from a used $90 iPhone 4. Once an exciting status symbol, even the touchscreen smartphone has become plebeian and mundane.
Here’s a thing that happens: elites (and people in general) like status symbols, but when status symbols become too easy to obtain and thus lose their status-signifying power, elites begin to dislike those things—and to look for new status symbols to replace them.