A friend got an iPhone because she could not call Uber cabs on her Blackberry. That solved a pressing problem—how to call a cab if she’s out for drinks and it’s rather late.
Unfortunately now she is terrified she will leave her über-expensive golden phone in the cab in a tipsy haze. So she has to plan her social life very carefully. If there is any prospect of drinks on the horizon, she leaves her iPhone safely at home thereby defeating the whole point of getting it in the first place. Smartphone, indeed.
I don’t have an iPhone and have never had one but it does not mean I will never get one. I have not avoided the iPhone because I disapprove of Apple’s labor practices in China or any such high-minded reason. I do own a Mac and love it. And I have a Blackberry which I have no particular love for, and is not cheap either, but I stick with out of sheer inertia.
I am just a bit of a status symbol Luddite. By the time I finally get something cool it’s already well past its coolness expiry date. Some people are just not early adopters. Oh, the iPhone is on Version 6? Where has the time flown!
I also refuse to use up my precious Internet bandwidth in India to watch the iPhone and iEverythingElse launch in far-off San Francisco live on my Safari browser. What other status symbol inspires that kind of insanity? I just don’t get it. Why are so many people watching the launch of a product that most of us cannot even afford, though Apple sales did go up 400 percent in India after it initiated its instalment and buyback schemes?
It goes without saying that the iPhone is a status symbol. But it’s a revolutionary status symbol. Unlike that Birkin bag, it’s a status symbol with really cool whiz bang upgrade-able features. That makes it a status symbol that actually does something instead of just sitting there, being a status symbol. And while we might have to bluff as we pretend to appreciate the finer points of 15-year-old single malt versus 18-year-old single malt, everyone can actually enjoy an iPhone, if not for its features then just for its sheer aesthetics. “It’s not a status symbol to me,” says a friend who wants one. “It’s just quite nice-looking like the iPad. And it takes slow motion videos.”
In fact, Apple has made aesthetics a status symbol in itself.
“A Blackberry is far easier for office work,” admits a new iPhone user a bit sheepishly. But the iPhone is way prettier. “You flaunt an iPhone, but you don’t flaunt an Android,” the VP of a digital media company wisely told Bloomberg explaining why Apple could get away with pushing its older models in India counting on our appetite for brand “cachet at affordable prices.” “Affordable,” of course, being a relative term here.
Best of all, this is a status symbol you can carry everywhere. You do not have to awkwardly try to insert it into a conversation—like the name of the club you belong to or the American business school your child attends or the car you drive. You can just fish it out of your pocket and look at the time. Or like my friend, the new iPhone user, post a picture on Facebook and coyly say “Because I can now take selfies.” That is classy.
That’s what makes it a godsend for a status-obsessed society like India. It fuses what has become the ordinary Indian necessity aka a mobile phone with high-end luxury and in a way, strips it of any consumer vanity guilt in a country where, as stories constantly remind us, two-thirds of the population lives on less than $2 a day. If you routinely post photos of yourself on Facebook flying first-class on international flights you are an insufferable show-off. But if you post photos with your new iPhone you are just on the cutting edge. It’s a status symbol that you can always justify—that Uber app, those Hyperlapse videos, and Instagram photos.
Of course, now you can take selfies and Instagram photos on other smartphones too (except my rotten Blackberry). But the iPhone gives you that discreet extra stamp of authentication that smugly sets you apart. No wonder in China, after the iPhone skyrocketed as a status symbol, a lucrative new side business emerged according to Minyanville.com: the selling of fake “has logged in via iPhone” signatures for users of the massively popular instant messaging program Tencent QQ.
In China, writes Josh Wolonick, an iPhone transcends mere luxury becoming “symbol of wealth, but also of ability and of a kind of western independence that is taking hold, along with capitalism, in the People’s Republic of China.” And those fake iPhone signatures “allow China’s working class to share, however minutely, in the prestige of China’s new American status symbol.”
All this is happening in a society where I actually use the phone far less as a phone. Most people who need to get a hold of me email, text, WhatsApp or BBM messenger. Eight out of 10 times when my phone actually rings, it’s someone trying to sell me life insurance. And I ignore it. Soon we might come to an age where we wonder why an iPhone is even called a phone—just as some once wondered why a floppy disk was called floppy.
Technology was supposed to be in the service of man. But when, in a world of Google Glass and Apple’s Watch, technology becomes a status symbol, it quickly turns into an extension of our egos. The “i’” in iPhone is now the operative letter. And soon we will have the cool new Watch with its dizzying array of icons and ability to tap-communicate with your Watch-ed loved one across the room. As comedian Ellen DeGeneres quipped: “So excited for the Apple Watch. For centuries, we’ve checked the time by looking at our phones. Having it on your wrist? Genius.”
There’s irony somewhere in this but until Apple comes up with a product called iRony, and livestreams its launch we won’t get it.
Sandip Roy is the Culture Editor for Firstpost.com. A version of this story appeared on Firstpost.com.