“Having…a bigger McMansion…probably won’t make you happier. At least, not in the long term.”

A journalist discusses keeping up with the Joneses and includes this bit involving McMansions:

So what does this mean for the drive to keep up with the Joneses? It means that having a nicer car, a bigger McMansion, a greener lawn or even the latest iPhone probably won’t make you happier. At least, not in the long term.

How many suburban status symbols can you include in one sentence? While this piece summarizes the detrimental effects of spending in order to keep up a wealthier reference group around us, this reference to McMansions is not unusual. Here, the McMansion stands in for a pattern of excessive consumption, a consumer good that isn’t necessary, requires long-term debt, and doesn’t really lead to long-term well being (at least such satisfaction based on comparisons with others).

Perhaps the more scandalous suggestion here is that the iPhone could function in the same way as a McMansion. The iPhone costs a lot less, is much more common (at least 500 million units have been sold – imagine that number of McMansions), and might even enhance sociability (as opposed to the McMansions emphasis on private space). The iPhone is a status symbol in its own right. But, the iPhone doesn’t attract the same level of criticism…

Older adults like bigger things, like McMansions; younger adults like smaller things, like skinny jeans

Here is an example of tying consumption of things like McMansions or skinny jeans to certain generations:

If there’s one thing today’s young people know it’s this: size doesn’t matter.

From watching movies on cell phone screens to driving micro-cars like the Honda Fit, less is more with this generation.

Known as millennials, people born in the years just before and after 2000, believe in small carbon footprints and short attention spans. They don’t watch television episodes, they watch YouTube clips. Even email is too cumbersome for them. Millennials prefer to communicate with more instantaneous social media like Facebook chat and text-messages.

Compare this with people from Gen X and older and you see how wide the size-gap has become.

We Gen X’ers wore baggy jeans, flannel shirts and puffy hair. Many (too many) of us have oversized televisions and drive Hummers as big as tanks. We live in McMansions and super-size our lunches while today’s younger people wear skinny jeans, live in small apartments, and eat more salad.

We had record and compact disc collections with gigantic stereo speakers. They have iPod Nanos and ear buds.

The conclusion of the argument is that doing more with less is probably better on a crowded planet. Comparing the consumption of a McMansion to a tiny house (a comparison made a few paragraphs later) is one way to measure things: one house is bigger than the other and requires more resources. But, how do you compare a McMansion to an iPhone? The McMansion might require more resources (though all that goes into making an iPhone is more hidden) but can’t the consumption of an iPhone still be a problem (if younger adults are spending hours and hours with the device – and at least some are)? Plus, if you consume smaller objects, theoretically you might do it more often and collect a lot of stuff in the long run, even if it is more in the form of digital files. And then skinny jeans versus baggy clothes? Is this more about aesthetics rather than the size of consumption objects?

All that said, making sweeping claims about consumption patterns across generations can be difficult. We might be on safer ground by arguing that younger generations today are buying different kinds of products (digital, in particular) and may not be valuing “traditional” American consumption (cars, bigger houses).

Seeing the world from behind the Genius Bar

Here is a fascinating look at the world as viewed from behind the Apple Store’s Genius Bar:

When Apple employees are asked what they love most about their job (and they are asked often) most invariably answer “the people.” They mean their co-workers, not the customers.

Because the daily expectations for customer service go beyond anywhere else in retail, only those with managerial ambitions will invoke their commitment to helping people. Some thrive on that. Others get diagnosed with PTSD. Consider that the flagship store on Fifth Avenue in New York City is open 24 hours and has more annual foot traffic than Yankee Stadium, yet only one door. Every day, in every Apple Store, people flood to customer service, when what many truly need is therapy…

This is the dilemma of working for a technology company that is also perceived as a luxury brand: We attract clients who understand that we provide the latest and shiniest things that they must have, while at the same time they have no idea whatsoever how to use them. I wanted to ask Debris, “Did you ever learn about electricity and water?” but instead just recite the question over and over in my head…

I look up at the dozens of people cradling their aluminum babies. Tapping their feet, chewing their nails, licking their lips, they’re worried bad about something that matters to them. I wish Barbara the best of luck, really meaning it, and excuse myself. I unholster my iPod and call out the next customer’s name.

Is this what the modern world looks like or is this highly idiosyncratic and applicable only to Apple stores? The author oozes a sort of Marxist alienation with hints that the work is hard and dealing with people all day long is difficult (and then contrast this with stories about Apple workers in China). Would this job be considered a “good job” today or are the employees hoping for a better opportunity?

It also strikes me that we have a lack of sociological studies today from inside major corporations. Think about the major corporations of the world today – Apple, Google, Walmart, Shell, McDonalds, Disney, and on – and sociologists are stuck observing from the outside. We have to rely on books like Nickel and Dimed that give us an inside glimpse. I assume many corporations may not like such an insider study as some of the findings might reflect poorly on them, but don’t we need ethnographic and participant observation studies of corporations to understand today’s world?

Mapping wealth by locating iPhone, Android, and Blackberry owners

Check out the maps of cell phone owners in Washington, D.C., New York, Chicago, and a number of other major American cities:

Among other things, cell phone brands say something about socio-economics – it takes a lot of money to buy a new iPhone 5 (and even more money to keep up with the latest models that come out faster than plan upgrades do). Consider, then, this map of Washington, D.C., which uses geolocated tweets, and the cell phone metadata attached to them, to illustrate who in town is using iPhones (red dots) and who’s using Androids (green dots)…

That picture comes from a new series of navigable maps visualizing some three billion global, geotagged tweets sent since September of 2011, developed by Gnip, MapBox and dataviz guru Eric Fischer. They’ve converted all of that data from the Twitter firehose (this is just a small fraction of all tweets, most of which have no geolocation data) into a series of maps illustrating worldwide patterns in language and device use, as well as between people who appear to be tourists and locals in any given city.

The locals and tourists map scales up a beautiful earlier project from Fischer. You could kill a few hours playing with all of these tools, built on the same dataset. But we particularly liked looking at the geography of smart phone devices. As in Washington, above, iPhones are often more prominent in upper-income parts of cities (and central business districts), while Androids appear to be the dominant device in lower-income areas.

It sounds like there could be some methodological issues here. The data doesn’t cover all Twitter users and then Twitter users are already a small subset of the US population. Nonetheless, these are interesting maps. I saw recently that over 50% of Americans now have smartphones – it jumped from 35% to 56% in several years. But, not all cell phones cost the same or aim for the same markets. iPhones aren’t just expensive. They also have a certain aesthetic and set of features that appeals to a certain set of Americans. Samsung had a set of recent commercials that played off the cool factor of iPhones, raising the idea of the phone as (expired?) status symbol. If you asked smartphone owners why they chose the phone they did, how many would admit that the status of the phone significantly factored into their decision?

More broadly, it would be interesting to think about what other common consumer goods could be mapped in ways that show clear patterns.

How others see you based on your smartphone choice

Buying consumer goods it not just about functionality. Items like smartphones serve as status markers:

As people ride the wave of technological innovation, judgmental people now include what smartphone or mobile device an individual owns in their criteria for social identity.

Sociology associate professor Coye Cheshire of the Berkeley School of Information said identity is closely linked into these kinds of choices.

The Apple iPhone has been an indicator of approved or superior status among consumers, Cheshire added.

Moreover, mobile device owners often see Apple devices as the top-tier consumer products when it comes to gadgetry.

Cheshire said an iPhone fits for people who do not have the luxury of tinkering with menus. But it does not necessarily mean an iPhone owner only understands little about technology and mobile devices. It rather advertises they have more important things to do with their time.

This is a good sociological reminder: we don’t just make choices for ourselves. Rather, what we decide to buy (plus what we eat, who we are friends with, where we live, etc.) are part of more complex social worlds where our individual choices are formed by and interact with other people. Also, in purchasing technology today, people buy in part because they think they are getting unique devices that allow them to express their individuality. This is happening even as they join millions of others in buying commonly available products.

Of course, these social symbols can change over time. Think of BlackBerry phones – they were once hot products that spoke to someone’s drive and ambition but today signal something quite different.

A sociologist on the iPhone at 5: “There has been no other device that has changed social and technological life in such a short time”

The iPhone just turned five years old and a sociologist makes some big claims about the impact of the device:

“There has been no other device that has changed social and technological life in such a short time,” said Clifford Nass, a Stanford University sociologist and psychologist who studies how technology impacts society. “There has been nothing like it in the world.”

This is a bold claim. I assume this primarily about the time period: important technology today has the ability to make rapid changes. This is one of the defining features of today’s globalization: stuff happens and spreads quickly. The iPhone itself is influential but it quickly led to other changes and pushed Android and other phone makers as well. I can admit that the smartphone world has some advantages.

At the same time, I wonder if this claim is too much. Looking at the broad sweep of human history, how does the iPhone stack up? What about the printing press, the plow, the steam engine, and so on? These devices may not have had such a quick effect but these led or contributed to whole eras like the Renaissance, the Agricultural Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution. Will we look back in fifty or one hundred years and see the iPhone as a similar singular device or is it part of the computer-age process?

Reflections on reasons some people hold out against smartphones

I found this overview of reasons why some people haven’t yet adopted smartphones to be quite interesting having been one of “those people” up until a few months ago. Here are the five reasons given for why some people haven’t made the switch:

  • Fear of addiction. “I don’t want to end up falling victim to the smartphone, where I dive in and get lost for hours at a time,” dumbphone owner 24-year-old Jim Harig, 24 told The Times‘ Teddy Wayne.
  • The benefits of disconnectivity. “I also fear my own susceptibility to an e-mail-checking addiction,” writes Wayne. “The pressure to always be in communication with people is overwhelming,”  Erica Koltenuk tells the Journal‘s Sue Shellenbarger.
  • Cost. “These die-hards say they are reducing waste and like sidestepping costly service contracts,” writes Shellenbarger.
  • Durability. “I want a phone that you could drop-kick into a lake and go get it and still be able to make a call,” says Patrick Crowley, who bought a new phone 5 years ago.
  • Anti-consumerism. “[David] Blumenthal sees no need to ‘keep running out and buying new things if you can patch them and they hold together,'” explains the Journal.

Until this past December, I would have argued for the first three reasons. Here are my experiences of these three reasons in the four months I have had a smartphone:

1. Fear of addiction. I didn’t want to be a person who pulls out their phone at every dull moment. I don’t think I do this today but the phone is undeniably handy in several situations. Since I love learning and information, it is invaluable to be able to look things up. Also, in moments that where I would have been waiting already, say the barber shop or in line, I can quickly look things up and use my time well (what a rationalization…). Third, a smartphone is indispensable while traveling whether one needs a map, restaurant reviews, airline info, and more. I would say that addiction is hard to combat though.

2. Disconnectivity. I like the occasional experience of being disconnected. In fact, I think it is necessary to disconnect occasionally from all electronic/digital media. Here is my personal measure of addiction: if I can still enjoy a longer period of time (a few hours to a few days) without feeling a consistent need to check my phone, I’m in good shape. The smartphone should be a tool, not my life. The phone can enhance my interaction with others but it can also be a hindrance and I want to be mindful of this. Additionally, I have refused to connect my phone to my work email and I don’t want any apps that would allow me to do work through my phone.

3. Cost. I’m still irritated about this issue but there are cheaper options than the contract carriers. My wife and I got phones from Virgin Mobile and while it is not perfect, it is cheaper than any of the contract options. Perhaps this is simply the price of living in the modern world and considering that these phones are like little computers, it is a worthwhile investment.

All in all, the smartphone world is a nice one even if I have lost the “pride” mentioned in this article of being someone who can still hold out against the powerful forces of technology and consumerism. But I can still be part of the camp that relishes not having an iPhone