Tech Now + Beyond

How AirPods reveal the classism of high tech

“He can’t hear you, he has AirPods in!” Most internet-savvy people are probably familiar with that joke, and the inevitable response, “I don’t speak broke.” I’ll admit, it’s a fun meme, and one that makes it easy to poke at Apple’s constantly shifting line of products. Regardless, this joke reveals something much more insidious about the inherent classism of our technology.

I remember the jokes we used to tell in high school. In gym class, all the other kids would put their phones in their locker so they wouldn’t get stolen. “You don’t have to,” classmates would joke, “you have an Android.” I’d often make the same joke about myself, but I never realized why. I remember that students with a PC or, god forbid, a Chromebook were always the butt of the joke. Students with a sleek MacBook Air or an iPad rarely garnered the same heat.

Even now, the technology we own has become a tool for reading into one’s class status. Owning an iPhone SE is very different from owning an iPhone X, especially at some colleges where many students come from wealthy backgrounds. The laptop you bring to class, the headphones you wear, and the phone you use all become class markers, even unwittingly.

I’ve heard many people talk about technology as “the great equalizer,” and that’s partially true. With further access to technology, it is easier for people to, say, fill out job applications, get a better education, and access information that wouldn’t otherwise be available. The fact that most Americans have a computer or a mobile phone is a testament to the importance of technology, as well as their increased availability. Nevertheless, we need to accept that we’ve allowed these essential products to become stratified. If phones and computers are truly a utility, or even a necessity, they shouldn’t be luxury items or class markers. We all need technology, so why stratify it?

This is where AirPods come in. I remember seeing firsthand how AirPods went from a mockery among younger people to a deeply coveted status symbol. With a high price tag and the Instagram influencer stamp of approval, it was widely popular. I remember coming back from winter break just last year to see that dozens of my classmates had the newest generation of AirPods. Just a few weeks before, only a handful of students owned them.

AirPods aren’t popular because they’re convenient. They’re easy to lose, difficult to charge, and can just be an overall pain. They’re popular because they’re a class symbol. By walking around with Airpods, one can signal to others that they are wealthy enough to afford AirPods and trendy enough to understand their value. Those who can’t afford them are simply left out of the loop.

The root of the issue isn’t AirPods themselves, it’s the fact that we have allowed technology to become a status symbol. Major tech companies are keenly aware of the designer status of their products. They’re the cause of the issue, but still, we as consumers are more than eager to play along with that. Even at a very progressive liberal arts college such as mine, technology equals status. It’s easy to forget that this status centers on wealth and class.

So what’s the solution? There really is no clear-cut answer. We could learn to value technology more for its functionality. We could refrain from judging others for the technology they use. However, the fault lies primarily at the hands of larger tech companies. Tech companies need to gain a better understanding of their social responsibility with regard to class and wealth. Perhaps they’ll begin to change their strategies to curb accessibility and elitism in tech. They might even be able to remove the stigma of low-cost tech and stop marketing tech products as designer products. Until then, I’m sticking with normal headphones.

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By Camilla Selian Meeker

Camilla Meeker is a sophomore at Vassar College specializing in nineteenth century history and literature. She is an avid writer, reader, and costumer with an interest in Middle Eastern studies, historical clothing, and journalism. Camilla loves creative work and writing of any sort, and is excited to join the Tempest's summer editorial fellowship.