The secret lives of the super rich
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On the surface, water bottles as totems of consumer aspiration sound absurd: If you have access to water, you can drink it out of so many things that already exist in your home. But if you dig a little deeper, you find that these bottles sit at a crossroads of cultural and economic forces that shape Americans’ lives far beyond beverage choices. If you can understand why so many people would spend 50 bucks on a water bottle, you can understand a lot about America in 2019.
The first time I coveted a water bottle was in 2004. When I arrived as a freshman at the University of Georgia, I found that I was somehow the last person alive who didn’t own a Nalgene. The brand’s distinctive, lightweight plastic bottles had long been a cult-favorite camping accessory, but in the mid-2000s, they exploded in popularity beyond just outdoorsmen. A version with the school’s logo on it cost $16 in the bookstore, which was a little steep for me, an unemployed 18-year-old, but I bought one anyway. I wanted to be the kind of person all my new peers apparently were. Plus, it’s hot in Georgia. A nice water bottle seemed like a justifiable extravagance.
Around the same time, I remember noticing the first flares of another trend intimately related to the marketability of water bottles: athleisure. All around me, stylish young women wore colorful Nike running shorts and carried bright plastic Nalgenes to class. “With Millennials, fitness and health are themselves signals,” says Tülin Erdem, a marketing professor at NYU. “They drink more water and carry it with them, so it’s an item that becomes part of them and their self-expression.”
.. Kauss says she always knew the bottle’s appearance would be important, even though positioning something as simple as a water bottle as a luxury product was a bit of a gamble. “As I moved up in my career, I was upgrading my wardrobe, and the bottle that looked like a camping accessory really didn’t serve my purpose anymore,” she says. When she noticed fashionable New Yorkers were carrying luxe disposable plastic bottles from brands such as Evian and Fiji, she realized reusable bottles could use a makeover, too.
.. Kauss and her contemporaries struck at the right time. The importance of fitness and wellness were starting to gain a foothold in fashionable crowds, and concerns over consumer waste and plastic’s potential to leach chemicals into food and water were gaining wider attention. People wanted cute workout gear, and they wanted to drink water out of materials other than plastic. Researchers have found that the chance to be conspicuously sustainability-conscious motivates consumers, especially when the product being purchased costs more than its less-green counterparts.
.. For a lot of people, they spark a little bit of joy in the otherwise mundane routine of work, exercise, and personal hygiene. For a generation with less expendable income than its parents’, a nice bottle pays for itself with a month of consistent use and lets you feel like you’re being proactive about your health and the environment.
.. what skills/traits allow a person to make such predictions with high accuracy?One thing is that I think you need a pretty wide set of priors–breadth. Stuff like history, anthropology, economics, the history of art. Lots of knowledge about human behavior, politics, culture, stuff like how emotions guide behavior, etc.
When I look at a typical STEM education, we deliberately don’t prioritize this stuff. We know lots of things about how electrons behave and which sorts of functions grow the fastest and how cellular mitosis works. Not as much about why empires fall, the role of greed in political revolutions, or the changing role of women over the last 500 years. I think this puts HNers (I think STEM people are probably overrepresented here) at a significant disadvantage at making these kinds of broad predictions.
The thing we do have going for us is our ability to understand the course technology is going to take: what’s possible, what will and won’t work, and why.
I also wonder whether the people you’re around influence your ability to predict what’s next. On one hand, it’s a well-established fact in social science that many social trends, at least in the US (things like marriage and divorce rates, educational trends, changing attitudes around dating, purchasing behaviors), start in the upper-middle classes, as they have the numbers (population) to make real differences in buying habits, politics, etc., whereas the rich have more money but much smaller population. On the other hand, the lower classes in the US vastly outnumber what I’d consider a typical HN reader. Something like 70% of US adults don’t even have a bachelor’s degree, and the US median income for an individual is around $40K. Keep that in mind as you think about this stuff.
.. One of the things I find most striking when watching old movies is the general attitude of people toward tech.
If you look at movies from the 70s and 80s, conspicuous display of tech was common. Look at stereo systems of the time, and how people treated mobile phones (they were huge and conspicuously displayed). This partially echoes the “machine age”  of the early 20th century, a a time when tech was seen as “modern” and a force for progress.
Whereas these days, we want things to be light, invisible, and out of the way. That’s a major change in attitude.
I actually feel we might see fewer “screens” in the next few years if the combination of voice and AI becomes powerful enough that most things can be done by voice or thought. I think more and more decision-making (things like which plane to book/flight to take/etc) will be made by automated systems that know our preferences and we’ll be picking from fewer and fewer menus. Sort of like a human assistant, but available to the masses and more accurate. Google’s Duplex is a big step in this direction. The key is ceding more decision-making authority to software.
In any case, I wouldn’t be surprised if we all just have earphones, either over-the-ear, or implanted in our heads, in 15 years. The broader theme is that I think we’ll want things to be invisible rather than visible.
I also think you’re right that the rich will want less of this stuff. There’s already a huge socioeconomic difference in how people use tech. Look at how a rich family eats in the US today vs. a poor family. Rich families put their phones away, poor families spend the entire dinner posting stuff on Snap. Just walk into a burger king vs. a fine dining restaurant to see that trend in action.