Around my son's first birthday, I started holding my iPhone up to his ear when my wife called and saying, "It's your mama, Luka. It's your mama." Our boy often made cooing sounds in response to her voice. • And when I snapped photos with the phone, I showed them to Luka in the moment. He responded with giddy joy. • We quickly fell into a ritual in which I played a slide show of the photos and video in the phone as I put him to bed. Along with Luka, his mother appeared most often in the photos. Usually, by the second run-through, he would be asleep. Once in a while, when I nodded off first, I woke up to discover Luka tapping the screen to replay the video.
And then one day, about two months later, my iPhone rang. My wife's name appeared on the screen. Before I responded, Luka called out, "Mama!" I was so surprised — and proud. Evidence of their special bond, right? Soon after, Luka blurted out "Mama" again, while we were all in the living room. But he wasn't facing his mother. He was facing the phone.
It became clear: Every time Luka spotted my iPhone, he called "Mama!" Could he really be mistaking an iPhone for his mom?
Rich, a tech savvy friend in Philadelphia asked, via an online chat, whether our toddler might believe that his mother is actually inside the phone. Luka has heard her voice emanating from the device and he has seen her reproduced on the screen. Worse, I had spent two months pointing at the phone and saying: "There's Luka and his mama. … There's Mama and Luka." So Luka knows that his mother is in there. Though she isn't the only thing; she's one of the phone's many capabilities. In other words, Mama is just another cool iPhone app.
Not long after, while we were blowing bubbles in our living room, a friend named Mathias pulled out his identical white iPhone to capture the moment. Luka fixed his gaze on Mathias' iPhone: "Mama." Mathias patiently explained that Luka's mother was right behind him. But Luka was certain. "Mama!" he called to the phone.
From then on, any iPhone would do. Luka would spot her on the table: "Mama!" He would climb on furniture and reach anxiously for her: "Mama!" He spied her on the bookcase: "Mama!" He didn't just want to play with "Mama;" he needed his iMama.
Meanwhile, Luka's mother lost her natural maternal title altogether. She became nameless; Luka summoned her with a mere gesture of his hands or a random squeak. Eventually, he gave her a peripheral title: "Mammon," a sort of extension of his iMama. The only time that Luka directed "Mama" at his mother was when she used my phone.
My wife insisted that this didn't bother her. But since we were in Paris, she did ask a French psychologist what was going on. The psychologist explained to her that "Mama," at Luka's stage of language development, is actually a mot-valise, which translates as a "suitcase word." So "Mama" — or offshoot words like "Mammon" — can refer to an iPhone or a person, but it can also refer to actions, like feeding or lifting Luka out of the crib before sunrise. It can be a verb and a noun, meaning that it can be a mother, all things motherly, or even the action of mothering.
And, apparently, it can be those things on an iPhone. I got in touch with Dr. Richard Colman, a psychologist in Portland, Ore., whom I have known since my own childhood at the dawn of the home computer era, to ask him how Luka might interpret his mother's voice coming out of any phone and especially how he understood the video and photos of her on a smartphone.
In an e-mail, Colman explained that Luka's developing brain cannot make sense of the meaning of his mother's disembodied picture, video or voice. "When Luka says 'mama' in reference to the iPhones, he is basically saying 'I can see mama,' or 'I can hear mama,' or 'that's the device that I see and hear mama on.' Or 'I want to see a picture of mama,' " Dr. Colman wrote. "He's referencing the experience he has had with it, and not just her."
In decades past, I supposed kids might have been confused by old landline phones, cameras and even 8mm family film or video. But the effect has multiplied many times as these have all been combined into a single, instantaneously accessible object. In the dark analog ages of technology, if you wanted to show your child a photo, you had to take the pictures, drop the roll off for developing, wait, then sit him down with them. By the time the toddler saw the picture, the experience captured in it might feel like the distant past, if he remembered it at all.
Now, by contrast, Luka goes down a slide, I film it, we watch, and then he goes down the slide again. The recording of his memories is intimately intertwined with the experiences that become memories, almost from the start of his life.
My 3-year-old nephew in Seattle offers a window into my boy's future. When I sent a video of Luka to my brother, he immediately video-called us on the computer with his son on his lap. My nephew wanted to see us right away; he gets frustrated watching videos of family on the computer because they don't interact with him. Forget videos; Skype is his "normal."
The results of our own accidental iMama experiment have made me more sparing in my use of the phone. I've stopped narrating the slide shows and videos. When Luka's mother calls, I don't put the phone up to his ear. I store the phone out of sight. I figured the phone's mama-effect would quickly fade without reinforcement. But three months later, the only change is a loss of brand fidelity. When Luka wobbles down a cobblestone street and he sees anyone speaking on a flashy smartphone, he stretches his arms out to them: "Mama!"
Well, I suppose my son must really love his mama if he sees her everywhere.
Eric Pape has reported on Europe and the Mediterranean region for Newsweek since 2003. He is co-author of the graphic novel Shake Girl.
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