Spence Green

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I work at Lilt. In addition to computers and languages, my interests include travel, running, and scuba diving. more...

Notes on Status

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I have an attractive friend. A few days ago, she sent an email to me with a familiar post-script: ‘Sent from my iPhone’. To my surpise, the image of her clutching that sleek device made her all the more appealing. My reaction was instinctive and without premeditation. How does possession of a consumer good confer status upon the owner? What is the nature of that status? Perhaps it is one of my vanities to think that I am conscious of consumerism’s influence on me. In this instance, however, it seemed that something more fundamental was at work.

Consider first the iPhone. Entry into the society made up of its owners requires only $200 and acceptance of a monthly premium. A person making minimum wage could join this club (assuming that his priorities were skewed appropriately). Apple shipped over 6 million iPhones last year; and, it intends to ship 50% more next year. Wal-Mart will offer the device by the end of 2009. Owning an iPhone is therefore no more irregular than subscribing to DirecTV. The notion of brand equity explains why Apple’s product is sexier than satellite television, but it is not immediately clear how the consumer can share in this equity.

Courtesy of Getty/AFP Images

Courtesy of Getty/AFP Images

If we assume that ‘personal equity’ and ‘status’, which is meant here as a form of social currency, are approximately equivalent, then there must be some method of transfer from object to owner. At this point it seems useful to separate goods by barrier to entry. Items with a high barrier to entry–an Aston Martin, membership at Augusta National, possession of a Picasso–clearly indicate wealth. Statistically, wealth is rare; historically, it has made its trustee enviable. The conclusion can therefore be made that any equity derived from these exclusive goods is superceded by the status brought by wealth. Luxury items are but a patina of something more significant.

What of lesser things? Handbags, jewelry, furniture, clothes, mass-produced ‘luxury’ cars: these may all be purchased without exceptional wealth or power. At the same time, the combination of a tailored Ralph Lauren suit and a sparkling new S-class Mercedes could hardly be described as feckless. A man possessing both of those–and an iPhone–would be most attractive.

But what if the man was ugly, or unintelligent? The observer might then conclude that he was trying to compensate for his natural defects. This distinction defines a critical boundary: it matters not if Bill Gates owns a Picasso. He remains Bill Gates. It may matter, however, if a mid-level executive drives a Mercedes. Herein lies the notion of decoration. A nice frame on an poorly-executed painting does little to enhance the overall result, just as makeup on an insipid face cannot make a woman beautiful. In art historical terms, decoration is a form of elaboration, which requires a starting point. Consumer goods thus seem to enhance only that which is already appealing.

My friend did not need an iPhone to make herself attractive. She was already starting from an advantageous position. Decoration enhanced her appearance, however, despite the availability of that decoration. A more thorough analysis of this phenonmenon would account for a broader range of goods, and for the effect of intangible assets like titles (compare ‘President of the PTA’ to ‘President of the European Union’). This cursory investigation, however, is tidy enough to explain how a pretty girl can use common things to make herself prettier.

Written by Spence

December 30th, 2008 at 11:34 am

Posted in Writing

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