The most strident reaction to last week's debutante ball for the Apple Watch wasn't, as you might have expected, excitement for a new, potentially transformative class of consumer product. Nor was it skepticism about the watch's commercial or cultural prospects. Rather, the most clearly voiced and vehement reaction to the watch, at least from where I was sitting, was angry sticker shock over the cost of the high-end model.
That ire was totally understandable: The $10,000 Apple Watch Edition proved an easy target for a swelling cultural resentment over the richest company in the world creating yet another "must have" chunk of future obsolescence to go along with our iPhone 6 and our iPad Air 2.
Yet the sheer bitterness of the response seemed to me incoherent, even naive. The top-end price for the gold-encased, ultrahard (as opposed to quitehard, veryhard, or superduperhard) wrist computer, $17,000 ($10,000 is just the starting price for the Watch Edition), is a prohibitive and foolish sum for almost everyone, to be sure. But in the world of luxury watches — one of the markets that Apple has clearly targeted with the new device — $17,000 is nothing. Don't believe me? Google Audemars Piguet.
I don't mean to imply that a $10,000 Apple Watch represents some kind of good deal. It's exorbitant. However, the aggrieved public reaction to that cost made something obvious: Consumer technology in America has a muddled and weirdly immature relationship with luxury goods and conspicuous consumption.
There have always been stupidly expensive electronics: televisions, gaming computers, cameras, sound systems; the things you find inside Bang Olfusen. And yet the purchaser of any of these things has always been able to tell him or herself, rightly or wrongly, that more money correlates with better, or more sophisticated, use. A more expensive television means a better picture; a faster gaming computer means better graphics, etc.
The finer and more subjective the distinctions are, as in high-end audio (and expensive wine), the easier it is to justify spending astronomical amounts of money — even if you can't hear the difference or taste the notes of wild juniper and caraway seed, I can.
But with electronics, it always comes back to a question of use, and when it doesn't, things get weird — tech and culture bloggers turning into Veblen-quoting neo-Marxists weird. Consumer electronics have simply never been able to comfortably escape the narrative logic of practicality. Higher prices must mean higher performance, right?
The $10,000 Apple Watch disobeys that. It doesn't do anything its $349 little brother cannot. All the devices work the same—the price is part of the attraction. That's why it only makes to sense to think about the Watch Edition in the context of traditional luxury goods, in which the questions of function and practicality are, if not secondary, irrelevant or even contradictory. A Hermès Birkin doesn't hold stuff any better than a plastic bag; a 60-year-old Macallan doesn't get you any drunker than a handle of Giorgi; a Cartier ring doesn't mean you're engaged any more than a Kay Jeweler's ring (depending on your chosen, I suppose).
You could argue that there are very few — if any — tech products that truly qualify in this way as luxury goods: products whose astronomical value inheres significantly to the status their ownership confers.
It was with this weird relationship in mind that I attended last week the third annual Luxury Technology Show, a "one-of-a-kind luxury showcase" held in Manhattan, which, according to Rand Luxury, the event production company that puts it on, "gathers ... industry executives along with affluent consumers interested in acquiring the world's finest innovations."
The show, done in a nonluxurious convention-booth style, features a lot of brands you haven't heard of, like Seura, which puts HD televisions behind waterproof mirrors, and Cloud9, which does smarthome installations for very wealthy New Yorkers, as well as a few brands you have, like Keurig and Harman.
Another thing the event featured: a very long and slow-moving entrance line, perhaps luxurious, in which grumbling men bearing Moscot frames and Monocle totes were offered plastic flutes of conciliatory champagne by women in short black dresses. (A woman with an unplaceable Central European accent grabbed a server's bare elbow: "Dear, one more glass. One more!")
Eventually credentialed, I was met at the entrance of the conference by a strikingly beautiful and thin woman gliding toward me perched on top a small-wheeled conveyance board.
It was, she told me, an IO Hawk, a two-foot wide, two-wheeled, bow-tie-shaped "personal mobilized transporter" with a top speed of 6 mph — think a Segway with no handlebars. Her hand gestures were opulent.
I asked if I could ride it, and my new friend led me across the show floor, at a speed my meat sticks could keep up with, to Sergio Flores, IO Hawk's marketing manager and convention floor riding coach.
Sergio was probably the most luxurious thing at the entire show. Sporting a spiky black undercut on top and a cascading black mullet in the back, dressed in a black marching band jacket and tight black jeans. He also had a rich black mustache and a single dangly cross earring on one side of his head. I took a photo of Sergio at the event, but that photo didn't really capture the extent of Sergio's luxury, so here instead is an Instagram video of Sergio at an indoor skatepark spinning on an IO Hawk while playing a credible classical flute as a skateboarder performs a kickflip over another IO Hawk:
Once you get the hang of the IO Hawk, which I did not, you can pull a few neat tricks, including rotating fast clockwise (as above), and rotating fast counterclockwise. The IO Hawk may in fact be the single best commercial device available for spinning around fast to check to see if you are being tailed, and then for slowly getting away. As I steadied myself on Sergio's arm, I noticed another woman who looked like a supermodel zoom in on her own IO Hawk to deliver a coffee to IO Hawk's CEO, stationed aboard his own IO Hawk, admiring a nearby Lamborghini.
The creators of IO Hawk call it a "last mile solution" — as in, the last mile between you and wherever you need to get — but it's very hard for me to imagine anyone lugging around a 20-pound barbell on the subway just to ride it at 5 mph to the office. Otherwise it is pretty much useless, and also very expensive ($1,800), and so I think it almost certainly qualifies as luxurious.
After successfully dismounting the IO Hawk, and receiving a high five from Sergio, I wandered over to a bank of devices that looked like small elliptical machines, with arms and footpads.
These, I discovered, were InBody machines.
The InBody machine measures you for about 30 seconds and then tells you how fat you are, broken down by the various regions of your body — arms, legs, and torso. The machine accused my torso of being significantly fatter than I thought it was, and my face must have registered alarm, because the assistant put a hand on my shoulder. "It would be different if we did this at the beginning of the day, and if you weren't wearing all those clothes," she said, which was kind of her. Anyways, being body-shamed by a $10,000 computer did not feel very luxurious; in fact it felt like I was being prompted to address a problem, which is the opposite of luxury.
Distressed, I made my way to a row of hulking massage chairs. Only one of them was open — people were asleep in the other three — and so I inserted myself into the chair. And "inserted" is the right verb, because to experience the chair you have to literally slot your arms and legs into wee fabric tunnels. A nice Panasonic rep came over and switched on the chair, which began mildly enough. As the rep talked me through the price options (high end: 8,000 smackers), however, the rollers started to really assault my lower back, and I think my involuntary grimaces chased him off.
The frightening and powerful luxury massage chair was certainly luxurious, but I also started to wonder if our definition of technology was getting a little broad, like, Scientology "technology" broad. Yes, the massage chair and the Lamborghini (and the BMW) could be defined as technology, but couldn't a luxury mechanical watch (time-keeping technology) or a luxury pen (writing technology) or a luxury mansion (shelter technology) also be?
I began to realize that most of the new products on display at the Luxury Technology Show were simply very useful and not at all luxurious. Take Petcube, a stationary camera that lets you spy on your pets from your mobile device. Or Beddit, an unobtrusive sleep analytics app. Or Alcohoot, one of several new breathalyzers that plugs into your phone. These are all relatively affordable (under $200) new technologies with discrete uses that hardly feel luxurious — unnecessary, perhaps, but fundamentally practical, problem-oriented.
Even more expensive devices, like the $695 iGrow, a silver helmet that covers your head and shoots anti-depilatory lasers into your scalp, and has a CEO who is as handsome and tan as a villain on The OC, addresses a problem: going bald. (So too does the $250 DaVinci vaporizer, which looks like a clamshell phone and addresses the problem of not having "getting inconspicuously stoned" technology.)
Other than the IO Hawk, in fact, it was hard to find a device at the show sufficiently useless to be considered purely luxurious. Come to think of it, that made a kind of sense: The dominant narrative of almost any new consumer technology (be it a device or an app) — finding an industry or a problem to disrupt — may be fundamentally incompatible with the idea of luxury.
In many cases, of course, goods are considered luxurious precisely because of their anachronism and slow method of production: mechanical watches, fountain pens, etc. These are devices that exist outside the narrative of technological process — that is, in part, why they are valuable.
All of which brings me back to Apple. If there is one technology brand that has the cultural cachet to sell consumer electronics not by promising to define and fix a problem, but by appealing to abstract qualities like beauty, or simplicity, or elegance, or class, it's obviously Apple.
That's why the argument that the $10,000 Apple Watch Edition is pointless because it will become technologically outdated doesn't convince me: Luxury watch buyers often hold certain historical runs of production as better or ideal, because of small changed details — a thinner bezel or a higher crown. In these cases, the technology of the luxury device is irrelevant. (This does raise a question — will Apple train a generation of antique Apple Watch repair experts?)
We often think of new Apple devices as creating new categories of need. What going to the Luxury Technology Show convinced me of is that Apple is trying to create a new category of technology for its luxury watch, but not one of need. Needs can be extraordinarily narrow (surfing the internet on the couch on my laptop isn't good enough, etc.) It is trying to create and mass produce for and monetize a world of wealthy consumers less fettered than ever by the sociocultural bonds of "good taste." Technology that transcends practicality, that costs more, does less, and ignores future innovations. For a certain consumer, it makes perfect sense. After all, you may not see the value in the Apple Watch Edition, but when I strap one on my wrist, I'm really picking up on those juniper grace notes and that ultrahard case.
Joe Bernstein is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Bernstein reports on and writes about the gaming industry and web culture.
Contact Joseph Bernstein at email@example.com.
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