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The smartphone as status symbol

/ 12:22 AM October 22, 2015

Is the smartphone the status symbol of our time?

When I was in high school, the rich kids in our class would fish out their Nokia 3310s and play “Snake” during recess, while I had to make do with an Ericsson that, years later, I would jokingly describe as large enough to be a security guard’s baton. Eventually, mobile phones got smaller and acquired more functions. Before I graduated from high school, it was the colored Nokia phones that became in vogue, fitted with cameras that are now an indispensable part of smartphones.

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Since its release in 2007, the iPhone has arguably become the iconic smartphone—but also the most expensive. Unable to afford one myself, I acquired my first iPhone by joining and winning a blogging contest. But even that iPhone, a 3GS, was soon made obsolete by the sleek iPhone 4, the retina display of the iPhone 5, and finally the larger, more slender iPhone 6. There’s always something new, but the smartphone itself is here to stay. Steve Jobs’ words during the launch of the first iPhone proved to be prophetic: “It is not just a communication tool but a way of life.”

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Status symbols—objects that indicate the social or economic status of their owners—have been around since time immemorial. The collection of gold artifacts in the Ayala Museum is a glittering reminder of a time when gold was a status symbol in ancient Philippines. Through history it would be joined by various others, including sports cars and Swiss watches. Status symbols have to be by definition “limited”: In the early 2000s the basic cell phone sufficed, but now that it’s much more affordable, it is the smartphone—the epitome of technological advancement—that has emerged as the status symbol of our time.

Social scientists, ever attentive to contemporary trends, were quick to recognize this. In 2003, for instance, a Turkish study found that among 630 young adults, status was a key motivation for the use of cellular phones. In 2013, a global study showed that 61 percent of men and 38 percent of women think that their phones are the first thing other people notice about them.

What are the implications of the smartphone as status symbol?

First, it will be sought after by people from all social classes. For the rich, it is all about being able to show one’s status. The rest, on the other hand, would also aspire to have a nice cell phone, fueled in part by the desire to be like the rich. Thus, even minimum-wage earners save up their salary for months just to buy a better phone. What makes smartphones powerful as a status symbol is that with enough perseverance, most people can actually afford them, unlike brand-new cars or multistory houses.

At the surface, the fact that smartphones are desired by many may cause us to think that it is a socioeconomic “equalizer.” But given that the phones cost the rich person nothing—figuratively in relation to their wealth, and literally through two-year contracts—we see that the poor can actually end up paying more for them. Status symbols give a semblance of equality even as they obscure inequalities between the different people that possess them.

Second, there will be attempts to create further differentiation. For the ultrarich, having an iPhone is not enough: One must have a nice leather case (Fendi’s Karlito iPhone 6 cover sells for $600). There are even iPhones refashioned with gold and platinum casings. In 2014, a Chinese businessman commissioned a $15-million iPhone 5, with a 26-carat black diamond at the home button.

On the other hand there will also be attempts to subvert this order of things. When I was a medical student at the UP-Philippine General Hospital, peddlers on Pedro Gil would approach us, flashing Samsung Galaxies and whispering the price of a few thousand pesos. I never got to find out whether those were stolen or clever imitations. As with fake and second-hand Louis Vuitton bags, there is a whole economy that caters to people’s desire to access status symbols.

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It is thus not accidental that a “sent from my iPhone” or “sent from my Samsung Galaxy S4” can be found by default on the bottom of your e-mail app, or that features like AirDrop, iMessage and FaceTime are for Apple users only. Status symbols, after all, are meant to be visible—just as they have to be exclusive. Doubtless, mobile phone companies like Apple and Samsung capitalize on these latent features their phones offer.

Recognizing the smartphone as a status symbol is not to deny its utility, or the added value of high-end phones (i.e., the camera). Neither is it to claim that everyone’s hooked on this game. Others are simply not interested; after all, people have survived without smartphones for millennia. There are also those who think (perhaps wisely) that the cheapest phone that works for calls and texts is good enough.

But for those of us who do use smartphones in our everyday lives, what we can take from this perspective is a little bit of self-reflection: To what extent are our mobile phone choices driven by function on one hand, and fashion on the other? Given the similar features between two different brands, or between a new and an old model, is our excitement borne out of need, or of desire?

With the release of the iPhone 6s, surely there will once again be stories from all over the world about people falling in line for days just to be first to have the new products. Looking at smartphones as status symbols can help us understand other people’s fascination with them—and perhaps our own.

Gideon Lasco is a physician and medical anthropologist. Visit his website on health, culture and society at www.gideonlasco.com.

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TAGS: iPhone, Samsung, smartphone, Technology
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