In the wake of this week's launch of the preposterous Solarin phone, I got to thinking about the strained relationship between luxury and personal electronics. When was the last time a piece of technology was introduced that was truly luxurious, exclusive in its functionality and capabilities rather than just its unaffordable materials? The answer might be the Tesla electric car, but it too is now rapidly descending in price, trickling down into mass affordability like every other piece of technology tends to. It's as consistent a phenomenon as gravity itself.
Being a luxury is a relative, context-dependent quality. Water and shade are luxuries in the desert, bananas are luxuries in Siberia, and time is a luxury to most adults. The defining feature of luxury is scarcity. The defining feature of technological progress? Precisely the opposite. Technology has been the most democratizing and egalitarian force of human history. Whether it's the wheel, the printing press, or the internet, every time a major technological innovation has happened, some element of social exclusivity and privilege has been torn down as a result.
Technological innovations start as luxuries, but end up as mainstream commodities
Very few luxuries would exist without technology to create them, but that doesn't prevent technology from being the thing that eliminates the luxury status as well. Just think about how much more you can do with your modern smartphone than Gordon Gekko could ever accomplish with his expensive carphone in the 1980s. Medical care today is orders of magnitude better and safer than it was just a century ago. The richest kings and queens could have spent all their wealth and they would never have had access to the basic vaccines, antibiotics, and treatments that we have developed in recent decades.
Technology is the biggest threat to luxury because of how it is developed and commercialized. There's a virtuous cycle between mass market devices producing the biggest profit and that profit being reinvested in the development of further mass market devices. Almost no one is investing billions into researching and developing a thing that would only ever be accessible to a limited, extremely wealthy clientèle. Even Bugatti, the car company that defines opulence and excess, is developing technologies and manufacturing methods that will later trickle down into use in more attainable models from its parent company Volkswagen. Cars of Bugatti's ilk never go down in price, but the innovations that they pioneer often do.
Luxury tech is a contradiction in terms
In personal electronics, the conflict between luxury and technological goods is most apparent. Look at the $1,500 Tag Heuer Connected watch and tell me what it does that cheaper Android Wear watches don't. The answer is it feels a bit nicer on the wrist, but functionally it's identical to any of the $200 alternatives. The $16,000 Solarin phone, claiming to be superior to everything that's come before it, is built around a painfully familiar Snapdragon 810 platform and is actually beaten on specs by a number of Chinese smartphones costing a fraction of its price. This is more evidence of the basic economic truth that the biggest investments in tech will follow the biggest potential for return. The best mobile technology we have today, whether it's Apple's A9 processor or Samsung's dual-edge display, is the product of such incremental reinvestment and refinement, and is now available to everyone and obtainable by many.
One reading — my reading — of Apple's historic success this century is that it was driven and informed by the gadgets company boss Steve Jobs wanted to have in his own life. He thought, rightly, that he had great taste in technology and that the rest of the world would see things his way. But in doing what he did, creating the best possible Apple laptop or phone or tablet and then selling it to the public, he was also promoting a more egalitarian social state. It's mind-blowing to me that the iPad Pro I can buy for less than $1,000 is the state of the art, technologically indistinguishable from the iPad that billionaires like Larry Ellison (who happens to own an island) also have on their coffee tables. Plus, technology can be reverse-engineered and copied, so I could also buy any one of the really rather awesome clones that are produced every year.
The story of technology is the story of developing and then obliterating scarcity. A few of us figured out how to fly, and those who followed in their wake made it accessible to the masses. Others came up with ways to store energy in batteries, ways to capture images in digital files, and ways to transmit those files wirelessly — and their successors turned all that into Flickr and Instagram and Facebook.
There's a market for luxurious things, but fancying up tech isn't the way to approach it
Luxury is supposed to be permanent, indelible, and indivisible. That can still be true of scarce things and resources, whether it's gold and diamonds, real estate and historic artworks, or the time of an expert tailor creating couture clothing. But technology's actuating force is to destroy such constructs. Your luxurious 10-core CPU of today will be dwarfed by the capabilities of mobile chips of the future. All those Apple Watches selling for thousands of dollars today will still have their gold exterior years from now, but their function and performance will age gracelessly when set against the background of rapid technological development.
I like the fact that there are real luxuries in the world. It's nice to have exclusive things that one can aspire to, and many people make luxury purchases to obtain a sort of physical totem for some business success. I don't begrudge any of that for a moment. But I also very much like the way that technology erodes luxury and makes everything so much more inclusive. What I don't enjoy is when someone, such as Sirin Labs with the Solarin phone, tries to reverse the process and de-commodify basic technological goods. The smartphone is a commodity, and no amount of blusterous talk or opulent specs will change that. We should celebrate the inclusivity of tech rather than indulging in weird ceremonies and processes to convert mass market goods into scarce luxuries.