If there’s one product that lets you make a snap judgment on someone’s lifestyle, personality, and how much money they make, it’s their smartphone.

From tech CEOs who wear hoodies and sneakers, to Instagram influencers flaunting wealth that they may or may not actually have, and even for us mere mortals, owning the latest smartphone is a dead giveaway of social status.

The smartphone has grown to be constantly present, ubiquitous in our working lives and our leisure time. Why people spend so much money on them is obvious: they now contain your whole personality, all the keys to your life and lifestyle, and are the first tool we use to present ourselves to to others online.

But how did we get here, with our entire lives defined by these rectangles in our pockets? How did the telephone you use become more important than the clothes you wear, the car you drive, or the house you live in?

Think different, like everyone else

Throughout its history, Apple products have been synonymous with individuality, creativity, and self-expression. Exhibiting the ability to bring your entire personal music collection everywhere with an iPod or tap away on a sleek Macbook in a hip coffee shop, Apple products signalled a new creative class of discerning tech users who favored their products for their personality as much as for their functionality, and using them sent out a strong social signal about the individuals themselves, carrying a countercultural cool factor that brought the brand its massive mainstream success.

With 216.76 million sold last year, it’s evident that people worldwide are still willing to pay top dollar for iPhones, even when they can get smartphones from other manufacturers with almost identical specs for much cheaper.

Technology choices say a lot about their users, whether they choose function over fashion and keep products that work for them as long as they possibly can, or are itching for the latest upgrade as soon as possible. And now that Apple products are no longer exclusively available to people on the cutting edge of tech, one of the only ways for consumers to differentiate themselves is to have the latest and greatest. As a status symbol, the updated operating system and new hardware features don’t actually matter, the ability to upgrade or to own a smartphone at all is a key factor in how people signal social status.

In a research study by Mediamark Research Intelligence, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, economists found that the simple fact of whether someone owned an iPhone or not allowed them to predict with 69% certainty whether they were high income, or in the top quartile of income for their household type, such as single adults or couples with children. Owning an Android phone or using a specific cell phone carrier were also consistent predictors.

This is exactly what a status symbol should do: by definition, they are objects that telegraph the wealth of their holders, and by extension, their social status. In ancient Rome, lemons were a status symbol due to their rarity, bright color, and distinct smell; for similar reasons, the pineapple was a favorite object in 17th and 18th century Europe, so prized as a possession that the fruit would often rot on the table as a display of wealth instead of being eaten.

Modern status symbols of the super-rich like mansions, private jets, expensive cars, designer clothes and accessories still hold some sway over the luxury market, but they’re sought after to demonstrate the possession of intangible commodities like fame, power, and influence.

Since ancient times, technological developments have been on the forefront of establishing status symbols. No wealthy or influential person in the courts of the Middle Ages would be caught dead without an astrolabe, which was as powerful an information-receiving device in classical antiquity as smartphones are today. Even within the 21st century, technologies that now seem cheap and commonplace like the CD player were highly priced ($700 in 1980!) and only available to the rich.

Status symbol smartphones across time and worldwide

Before the iPhone, several handheld devices with varying degrees of built-in smarts and design innovation had their time to shine as status symbols. In the 1990s and early 2000s, nobody with a high-paying and high-stress job could do without a personal digital assistant or PDA, like the Palm Pilot. Designed with IDEO long before Apple cornered the market on brushed aluminum and thin profile devices with internal batteries, the Palm Pilot in 1999 was the It gadget.

For a brief time in the early 2000s, the Motorola RAZR held similar cultural cachet: in comparison with the most popular phone in 2003, the Nokia brick, the RAZR’s slim, sleek design made it highly covetable, and the best-selling cell phone from 2004 to 2008. Shortly before the iPhone was released, in November 2006, the Samsung BlackJack was the one to have. It was AT&T’s first 3G-enabled phone with a 2.25” color screen that allowed calls, emails, and web surfing on Internet Explorer.

In many parts of Africa and South Africa, the BlackBerry is still considered the status symbol phone to have, in part because it was the first smartphone to take hold with high-status executives. A 2015 Student Tech Survey found the BlackBerry is still popular with the next generation of tech users, with 32% of the market, followed by Samsung at 27% and Nokia’s 21%. In Nigeria, BlackBerry holds 40% of the market.

But in most of Asia, Europe, and the U.S., the iPhone still rules. In China, where Huawei and Xiaomi are some of the biggest competitors in the smartphone market, the iPhone remains popular because of its international flair. Apple products remain a top gift choice among the super-rich of China, and for those who can’t afford the real thing, millions of people are willing to buy knock-offs out of Shenzhen, where police are still catching hundreds of counterfeits per month.

In India, writer Sandip Roy notes that the iPhone is the perfect status symbol because its practicality removes some of the guilt of buying it just for the brand name: “If you routinely post photos of yourself on Facebook flying first-class on international flights you are an insufferable show-off. But if you post photos with your new iPhone you are just on the cutting edge. It’s a status symbol that you can always justify — I need that Uber app, I want to shoot Hyperlapse videos, I have to take Instagram photos.”

Sociologist Thorstein Verblen, who published the concept of status symbols, also coined the term “conspicuous consumption,” referring to the practice of buying things purely for their luxury value. As modern consumers have become more class conscious, they reject conspicuousness in their purchasing choices. However, there may be an evolutionary drive to conspicuously consume: what biologists call “costly signaling,” much like the ostentatious plumage of the male peacock. A study published in Natural Communication tested whether it was a biological drive for men to own status signal goods by applying testosterone or placebo gel to their skin and asking them to rank their brand preferences. They found that higher testosterone correlated with higher regard for luxury goods.

But for the most part, humans are more than our biological impulses, and want our status symbols to say more about us than “I Am Rich,” like the ludicrous $999.99 I Am Rich iPhone app that simply displayed a glowing jewel and was actually purchased by eight people (two of whom requested refunds). Modern status signals are actually lifestyle signals, showing their users are more productive, healthier, and culturally rich, instead of simply financially well-endowed.

Lifestyle signals, smartphones, and social media

In a recent Guardian article about how working hard is the new status symbol, Ben Tarnoff writes, “If conspicuous consumption involves the worship of luxury, conspicuous production involves the worship of labor… This is the hallmark of conspicuous production: it justifies the existence of an imperial class by showcasing their superhuman levels of industry.” CEOs and people who work overtime to make the big bucks aren’t bothering to spend their hard-earned cash to show it off, instead they display how had they’re working to earn it. How little or how much they sleep also sends a strong message about earning potential and social status.

Health and fitness splurges are also obvious displays of wealth that have a guilt-free patina. Expensive gym wear, green juices, and memberships to exclusive fitness clubs are part of the “stealth wealth” phenomenon that allow luxury shoppers to express status through their lifestyle choices.

High end sneakers have become a major trend for the tech elite, because their comfort and casual fashion versatility are justifiable – but it’s still obvious to anyone in the know that Mark Zuckerberg’s sneakers retail well over $1,000.

By far the fastest-growing category of intangible status symbols are experiences like travel and food, or even better, a combination of the two, like an amazing virtual reality-augmented 20-course meal in Ibiza, or one of the most popular choices for high rollers from China, wine tasting in France. Buying experiences instead of things is enriching to the soul and is great for social media. Because who cares if you work long hours, hit the gym constantly, or fly around the world if there’s no one to see it?

This is how smartphones became the ultimate status symbol: not only are the objects themselves jam-packed with practicality and brand recognition value, they enable their users to show off all their other lifestyle status symbols on social media. The best smartphone contributes to productivity, and even better, the best smartphone cameras make sure no one misses a second of your glamorous, high-status life when you take pictures and videos of all the other lifestyle choices and experiences available to you.

The end of status symbols?

The iPhone is considered such a must-have item that today’s teens have made a cracked iPhone screen a status symbol the same way that expensive ripped jeans exude the “I can afford this, but I also don’t care” look. This artfully destroyed, perfectly imperfect aesthetic is demonstrated in numerous Pinterest posts of cracked back covers that have been colored in with markers. Owning a cracked screen or back cover is an extreme form of customization, like custom cases, accessories like PopSockets, and stickering, which are all major trends.

Today, having the latest technology is no longer only for the ultra-wealthy. As with Uber for rides and Netflix for movies, the market for accessing the latest tech is moving away from ownership and towards flexible access on demand. Smart tech lovers no longer pay full-price for new devices and rent them instead, sending them back when it’s time to upgrade. And when everyone has access to the latest technology, will it spell the end of status symbols? Probably not, as they evolved from hard-to-get fruits, to expensive cars, to always-on devices showing off high-status lifestyle choices.

The next generation of millionaires and billionaires are against conspicuous consumption, in favor of subtlety, personality, and practicality. The biggest trends in consumption are towards uniqueness, telling “status stories” about personal success, growth, skills, and experiences. They can be as customizable as tailoring your diet to your DNA, or reflect personal values like splashing out on a scuba diving vacation to help save coral reefs.

No matter what lifestyle choices, coveted items, or unique experiences become the new status signals, the ultimate status symbol of the smartphone will make sure there’s always an audience to impress with them. What is experienced, bought, eaten, and done to signal that one is living an enviable life would be useless without posting about it on social media as soon as possible and garnering likes, comments, and views… until the real status symbol becomes not having to impress anyone at all.