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February 12th, 2020
For all it’s conspicuousness, it’s gaudy signaling, the core of luxury - the real reason why any given person should be driven to chase it - is invisible.
The word Luxury has bit of a bumpy history, but if you go back far enough, it originates from Latin, and refers simply to excess. This excess has a negative association and that negative association only grew through the centuries until it morphed into the current usage which appears to be more in line with the original Latin root – still somewhat negative despite the fact that everyone is gunning for it. Those who can afford luxuries do so with an excess of money. And often, the obvious luxuries are conspicuous displays of this excess: unnecessarily expensive cars that do nothing more than get a person from point A to point B in much the same way a dirt cheap car does, expensive clothes that cover and warm the body little better than what the salvation army has on offer, food delicately prepared that offers nutrition little better than what someone can prepare on their own for far less. All of these forms of luxury are merely a way of signaling to others the excesses that an individual can command.
These conspicuous symbols of luxury are superficial. The signaling nature of luxury, and particularly its advertising often drives people to undermine their own wealth just to be able to display a wealth that they no longer have because of their drive to upstage or equal the visible value of someone else.
All of this misses the point of luxury, and the unique opportunity it can afford.
The core function of luxury is actually convenience. Top brands are often obsessed with figuring out ways to save their top spenders a little time.
Instead of “that’ll be $782.” it’s “I’ll just put that on your account.”
Every transaction that occurs in the market is a function of convenience. For example, it would be inconvenient to an insurmountable degree to build your own laptop from scratch. Luckily there are many thousands of groups of people that have been conveniently organized in a way to accomplish this work, and we pay for that convenience. There is little difference between the laptop and a cup of coffee that a barista prepares for you. Even if you are at home and that barista is you, chances are high that someone else is largely responsible for how those beans came to be in your possession, and you paid for the convenience of finding them a couple blocks away at the grocery store.
Think for a moment about the amount of time you would need to construct a laptop from scratch. Not just buying the components and putting them together, but mining the materials and developing the processes to form them into the right shape, and discovering or developing the laws of computation and how exactly you accomplish this with your mined and shaped materials. How long would you need to accomplish this as a single individual?
A thousand years?
Ten thousand years?
The cup of coffee is similar. If you were totally without coffee, how long would it take you to make a cup of coffee happen if you were alone on the planet? Depending on where you are located, you might have to travel and very long way in order to find a coffee plantation or a naturally occurring plant that yields our beloved black bean.
How long would you need? A few days? A few weeks or months?
It would certainly take you far less time than constructing a computer from scratch, but then again, a cup of coffee is far cheaper than a laptop.
Framing it this way, it seems like a miracle that powerful laptops are as affordable as they are. Making a few hundred or even a thousand cups of coffee from scratch to equal the cost of a laptop would take an amount of time that does not even begin to register on the time scale of creating a laptop from scratch. Either our coffee is far overpriced, or the relatively low price of a laptop is nothing short of a genuine miracle.
The excess that exists at the heart of luxury is time, hence it’s connection to convenience.
The adage Time is Money, also comes to mind to cinch the laces of this connection a little tighter.
An excess of money ultimately affords us free time, which can be spent in the productive pursuit of curiosity, but the benefit of this is counter-intuitive, and many would rather spend this extra money, not on free time, but on symbols to broadcast to others. And yet, our greatest achievements as a species often come from the mind unencumbered by nothing other than coming up with a way to creatively fill free time.
Two wildly different examples help illustrate this. The popular writer Neil Gaiman has often said that the way he comes up with stories is to simply make himself very bored. At a certain point, his mind starts to build it’s own entertainment and he starts writing it down. Another immensely powerful example that elicits this point about free time is Newton. It was during his isolation created by the Plague that he developed Calculus.
When sloth and idleness were deemed vices, it was a time of far less knowledge and information. But in the modern world, with so much information dammed up at the thresholds of our senses, the vices invert:
The most valuable way to spent time, is to allocate it as free time.