As economies of scale transform an experimental invention into a mainstream commodity, a few decades of societal adjustment typically follow. Something that begins as a luxury good eventually evolves into a new necessity of modern life. Shortly thereafter, a slew of different upgrades, add-ons, and maintenance needs eventually create a hierarchy of buyers. A product that was once invented for practical needs regains its identity as a status symbol when different models at different prices enter the market.
This is the current state of laptops, tablets, and mobile phones. It is also where the U.S. auto industry was just a few decades ago. The automobile was once a mere plaything for the ultra-rich until Henry Ford’s assembly line made it available to the average consumer. But Ford’s dominance of the auto industry was short-lived. Although Ford had been first to mass produce a car, it was General Motors who was first to offer yearly models, an aesthetically motivated line of car bodies and certain models designed for fun over efficiency.
The peak of excessive and inefficient car models in the 1960’s was also unsurprisingly the age of big roadsters, muscle cars, and the business model for what would be SUVs. The formula is simple. When an industry has as much dominance as Silicon Valley has over personal devices, or as Detroit once had over cars, cheapening parts and greater competition pushes the selling point on the item ever-closer towards social status or marketed image, something far less replicable than mere technology.
Apple, for example, holds their market share against copycat devices to a great degree because of their investment in coordinated aesthetic choices, such as offering different colors, cases and sizes for their devices. Industrial designers, although not the founders of Apple, are a big part of what maintains their image today due to their ability to craft a marketable body around otherwise fairly boring looking hardware. Conversely, the rise of General Motors coincided with the rise in their company of Harley J. Earl, an industrial designer from Hollywood who pioneered clay modeling and freeform sketching as a means of making car bodies that would be aesthetically pleasing.
But also like Ford and General Motors, tech companies such as Apple run the risk of eventually losing their economic dominance by overemphasizing the luxury-driven marketing principles that elevated them in the first place. The rapid decline of the U.S. auto industry was in large part a result of people’s disillusionment with cars as status symbols. The average person today buys a far smaller and infinitely more fuel-efficient car than they would have fifty years ago, or even ten. The shock value and newness of automotive technology has faded much of the glamor, and an interest in practicality has swiftly returned, accompanied by an often fervent anti-waste attitude. Status quickly disintegrates into superficiality. Or in the case of some factories in Detroit, literally disintegrates.
Such a thing has not yet happened to the tech giants of our time. People still line up for new Apple products and use their smart phones for just about everything. National dialogue has grown increasingly distressed about how people have become entrapped by these new devices, even as their popularity worldwide continues to grow.
But like the auto industry, status at the cost of waste is a looming problem. The amount of computing power in a standard MacBook pro is far more than your average college student needs to get on the Internet, engage with a word processor, and store some photos and music. Apps, from Instagram to Snapchat, only hold their consumer base for the length of one’s teenage years. But at least for now, that is the cost of maintaining coolness.
There may come a time when people are far less blown back by the newness of portable computing devices. Tech’s modern day glamor has already sustained some blows, such as Microsoft’s loss of market dominance. The late Roman Empire of tech, Microsoft’s eroded relevance is mainly owed to the decline of the personal computer, a device which like Ford’s Model T, failed to compete with cooler, more diversified alternatives.
The tech industry, just like the auto industry, reaps massive short-term profits from their ability to capitalize on the status and hype associated with their products. But when that hype eventually dries up, or at the very least changes focus, the companies that survive are the ones that don’t sacrifice too much efficiency in pursuit of status. Unless in a few decades time we want a national crisis where the federal government is concerned about bailing out oversized, “too big to fail” tech giants, it would be wise of businesses to resist relying upon coolness, and for all of us to keep in mind that, like every hot new product to enter the marketplace, we’ll eventually get over it.