Horace Dediu recently devoted much of two podcasts1 to the word “luxury” and to a gap he identified between the word’s connotations and the underlying phenomenon it labels. He asserts:
We cannot use the word “luxury”. It is obsolete.2
because the current implications mislead us so badly. He concludes the podcasts without settling on a replacement.3 I would like to suggest a candidate replacement I hear running through them.
Early in the first podcast, “The Hookup”, Horace quotes Jony Ive regarding what a quality product, and therefore all luxury products, must do:
Show you care4
He builds an extended line of reasoning around “care”, considering it from several perspectives, and arguing that Ive’s choice of phrase does capture something central to the matter at hand. Owning and displaying certain kinds of possessions:
shows you care about the quality of the product so by you buying the product you personally care about it and secondly the world knows you care about it so the notion of caring and the notion of luxury may be quite interchangeable.5
Horace recommends we watch a Scott Galloway talk in which Galloway says that wearing an expensive watch is his “signal” to others he wishes to invest in him.6 His use follows that of economists, for whom “signal” is a term of art for proving your priorities. In the paper coining the term, “signals” are defined as:
observable characteristics attached to the individual that are subject to manipulation by him7
In order to serve their purpose, signals must be costly to acquire:
It is not difficult to see that a signal will not effectively distinguish one applicant from another, unless the costs of signaling are [substantial, otherwise] everyone will invest in the signal in exactly the same way, so that they cannot be distinguished on the basis of the signal.8
Horace gives an example of his own signaling:
I want the brightest red and the whitest white on all my Apple products … The logic for me is that I think the Apple product should be irridescent, it should be visible … . I think red simply says I have a product I’m proud of. … It suits me. I don’t wear red bright clothes, I wear average whatever blue or black or grey. … the [white] watch and the red phone are going to be standing out in that context … That’s me.9
He goes on to explain that the importance of Apple products to him is rooted in how he spends his time:
I’m surrounded by more computers and screens than necessary, but I feel that in my line of work that’s what “luxury” means. So I’ll wear [no-name clothes] but I put a lot of money into … [the] things I stare at and … touch all day long. Spend more time with them than I do with anything else so I believe in buying quality.10
Here his devotion of time serves as the cost that distinguishes a signal. I propose that we combine these two lines of analysis to coin:
as a replacement for “luxury”. Consider these reformulations of why he chooses bright colors for his favorite products:
The colors signal what he cares about.
The colors serve him as a care signal.
Taking advantage of a less-common usage of “signal” as an adjective, we get this felicitous phrase:
These tools are his signal care.
“Care signal” honors the insights of Jony Ive (and Horace himself). It aptly invokes an economic term of art. Most of all it serves Horace’s declared goal of freeing our commentary from the specific associations “luxury” has with expense and exclusion. It does so by shifting the “importance” relation from the group:
Luxury products are for the richest.
You aren’t welcome in that luxury establishment unless you are elite.
to the individual:
Those high-performance tires signal that he cares how his car drives.
The Buddha statue in the foyer announces her signal care.
This distinction between one’s identity as position in a social hierarchy and one’s revealed priorities suggests why “luxury” remains in use: it is human nature, or at least the nature of many humans, to prioritize their claim to as a high position their society as they can manage. From that perspective, exclusion and expense do signal one’s cares, and the distinction between care signal and luxury does not exist.
1. The Critical Path #144: The Hookup (CP144), The Critical Path #147: Attracting the Mind, likely parts of others I haven’t listened to, and at least one blog post, “Luxurious“. I have spent several hours transcribing long chunks of those podcasts, but I refer readers interested in the quotations I cite to the spoken originals, which I may have misquoted slightly.
2. CP144 ~59:45
3. At least, one that I have noticed. I cannot claim to have absorbed all of his extensive output.
4. CP144 ~9:45. The actual phrase Horace cites is “showing you care”.
5. CP144 ~10:25
6. Specifically, potential mates: DLD15 – The Four Horsemen: Amazon/Apple/Facebook & Google–Who Wins/Loses (Scott Galloway) ~12:05
7. Michael Spence, Job Market Signaling, p.357
8. Op. cit. p.358
9. CP144 ~37:25
10. CP144 ~42:xx