Culture At Large

Wealth in light of the Apple Watch

Jordan J. Ballor

The announcement this month of the Apple Watch raises a number of perplexing challenges for Christians. A dominant theme of much commentary has had to do with the top-tier Apple Watch Edition, with options ranging from $10,000 to $17,000. These models feature rare crystal screens and precious metal cases.

Apple products have never been cheap, but this new level of luxury represents the company’s recognition of the mainstream nature of such conspicuous consumption. Pop culture often extols bling, and a popular brand like Apple is beginning to reflect the previously unachievable levels of affluence that would allow someone to spend five figures on a digital watch.

For Christians, this level of spending often seems absurd, and rightly so. It’s worth exploring the deeper issues that might drive someone to purchase such a luxury good.

Perhaps buying a gold Apple Watch is intended as a signal of a person’s status, taste or wealth. For others, early adoption of new technology has less to do with signaling than with being part of a movement that is progressively achieving better and better things. Others may want to recognize and reward the work of those who have made possible such amazing technological accomplishments. To determine your own motivations, Marketplace even has a quiz asking, Which Apple Watch Are You?

It is difficult to define hard and fast rules for what qualifies as excessive consumption or gluttony. Certainly there is some variation from case to case. Still, it would be hard to morally justify such seemingly excessive purchases. Surely there are better uses for that amount of money, no matter what one’s level of income. In fact, Luke suggests that those who make more can be viewed as held to an even higher standard.

It’s worth exploring the deeper issues that might drive someone to purchase such a luxury good.

It is also important to note that even in such cases where the motivations to purchase these kinds of luxury goods are vicious rather than virtuous, God has allowed the market to work in ways that often ameliorate negative social effects. So even while the ultra-rich can live a life of “Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your time piece” (as Lorde puts it), the money they spend on such luxury goods can have some broader economic benefit. This kind of analysis doesn’t provide moral justification for such conspicuous consumption, however, especially as it overlooks what other productive uses such wealth might have been put to. All it does is merely show that even in cases of excess, things are not as bad as they could be.

For those of us who will never have the opportunity to be challenged by the temptation to spend $10,000 on a digital watch, some other self-examination is in order. The mid-level Apple Watch offerings run into the thousands of dollars as well, which for many of our neighbors and others around the world would certainly qualify as a luxury good. We should be careful not to rationalize our own luxuries by simple comparison with the even greater excesses of others.

Another notable aspect of the Apple Watch announcement is that there is also a plan for a lower tier offering, running at a cost of a few hundred dollars. Again, for many this too represents an excessive if not unattainable level of spending. Yet here you see Apple taking a product line into areas of the retail market that it mostly has left alone in its computer, tablet and phone products. While the luxury market stretches upward, Apple’s retail offerings also extend downward.

Even while it cautions against idolatry and materialism, the Christian moral tradition has always taught that the created order has an intrinsic value and that wealth is not inherently evil. The lesson of the Apple Watch then, whether it costs $300 or $17,000, is that it is far more important why we spend our money the way we do rather than what we spend it on.

Topics: Culture At Large, Business & Economics, Money, Science & Technology, Technology, Gadgets