Whose Definition of Luxury Are You Using?

Technology’s impact on the psychology (and stigma) behind luxury.

James Monsees
Oct 6, 2014 · 3 min read

It might feel frivolous to indulge in a big-screen TV when there are people in the world without clean water, but it’s important to remember that luxury is different for everyone.

For some, it means a new high-tech device; for others, it simply means a better place to sleep, and that’s the beauty of luxury — it’s relative. What’s more, while money can buy happiness, it can only do so to a certain point.

According to a study by Angus Deaton and Daniel Kahneman of Princeton, day-to-day happiness increases with income up to $75,000 per year, after which day-to-day happiness plateaus while overall life satisfaction continues to increase.

But it’s important to remember that it’s our experiences that give us a taste for what’s really important, and only when we have an outlet for applying our individual tastes can we be empowered by feelings of independence, individualization, and success.

So while we don’t need to feel guilty about luxury by any means, we do need to understand that its definition is always changing.

For example, not many people lust after first-generation iPhones these days because the definition of luxury in that category has shifted — something that once felt magical now feels ubiquitous and antiquated. Our phones, laptops, and (soon) wristwatches are the greatest victims of technological obsolescence.

As the tide of technology constantly demands more power and more beauty, we quickly lose sight of the brilliance of these objects simply to keep pace.

Technology evolves so quickly that we purchase these items not because we consider them a luxury, but because we don’t want to be left behind. The future of luxury lies in creating individualized experiences.

Take vinyl records, for example. They became obsolete because they were viewed as clunky, space-consuming, and impractical. More compact devices replaced vinyl, with digital media eventually replacing those. But now, our desire for a unique and individualized experience has turned listening to vinyl into a beautiful experience once again.

Individualization is an emerging and powerful tool to bring accessible luxury into all of our lives. Companies like Timbuk2 have built brands on the concept of customization for decades, but advances in technology will create more independent views of how to define luxury.

Tools like 3D printing affect our needs — by providing things such as individualized medical devices — but they still create an individualized experience. For example, you can purchase earbuds to perfectly fit your ears from OwnPhones.

Likewise, leveraging underutilized resources for mass-market accessibility can create an efficiency of scale that makes once-luxury experiences available to the mass market. A great example of this is Uber. The company made the black cars that are already on the road — but seldom used at high cost — readily available to a broader consumer market for a fraction of the price.

Local governments also have the power to bring luxury into the lives of those who need it most. For example, providing free Internet access will ultimately allow their constituents to be better educated, informed, and motivated, which will have a positive effect on the region as a whole.

Stigma from luxury stems from scarcity, but advances in technology create an independent view of how luxury is defined — pulling power from large corporations and shifting it to innovators. It’s time to stop aspiring to one socially accepted view of perfection. With individualization, everyone can add their own sense of individuality to create a range of aspirational identities.

After all, my luxury is not your luxury, and it’s time we started acting like it.

Tech and Inequality

The complex but transformative nature of technology and its impact on social mobility and equality.

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