In a world where one-third of pet-owning married women say their pets are better listeners than their husbands, it's no big surprise that we also may form strong attachments to handheld electronic devices.

No, I'm not talking about the Rabbit Pearl vibrator.  Well, not intentionally.

I am talking about mobile devices like the Apple iPhone, an object so loved that talk-show star Ellen DeGeneres was forced to publicly apologize for making a spoof commercial of the product.  Like mothers on Mother's Day, the Apple iPhone seems to be an untouchable object of affection.

Why do we love iPhones so much?  And, while we're asking questions, is it possible we love them more than our mothers?

No, we're not here to crack naughty jokes about the potential for lusty iPhone porn apps to trump our love for our beloved mothers, you dirty birds. There really may be more to this.

Fifty years ago, Harry Harlow unveiled his landmark "wire mother, cloth mother" research with rhesus monkeys. In the infamous study, cute little rhesus infants were "raised" by artificial mothers—sculptures of metal, some of which were covered in cloth. While the study was certainly unethical by today's standards, the results were nonetheless conclusive: we primates prefer soft, squishy things over hard, mechanical things. And we love and need our mothers, or at worst, surrogates that offer us the same benefits as mothers.

Jump ahead half a century, and you'll see that some engineers and product designers who took an Intro to Psychology class in college have attempted to exploit these instinctual drives:

Sorry I had to go Furby on you to prove a point.  I spared you the MP3-playing pillows for infants; you can thank me later. 

There's also a solid argument that a human infant would have a tough time getting a date in college if his only source of affection as a child were from an interactive slate of plastic and glass. But, in general, it seems that Harlow's theory is out the window—we humans are quite capable of loving machines and other inanimate objects.

Don't believe me? Hop on Google or Twitter (if you have visited either more than once today, you needn't bother—you've already proved my point) and search the term "iPhone love." After you've watched a few YouTube videos of grown men cuddling iPhones and bought yourself an "I Heart My iPhone" thong, come back and we'll keep going.

Go on, I'll wait for you.

.

.

Back?  Oh good. That was creepy, wasn't it?

So, why-oh-why do we do this? The Apple iPhone is not the first machine to be loved—printing presses, CARS, gaming systems, TELEVISIONS, Tickle-Me Elmos—none of them are capable of giving us love in return, at least not in the way some theorists define love. But, whether it be a blessing or a curse, our love for them is undeniable. 

Just ask my wife, who once, just before bedtime, wondered aloud if I was cheating on her with my HTC Droid Eris.

Not to worry dear. Artoo and I are just good friends.

Does our adoration of iPhones and other machines even count as love? Is it emotional, physical, an evolutionary necessity, a psychosexual substitute? And can this material love really compare to maternal love?

Lee Gomes would say no. In a story for Forbes Magazine, Gomes hypothesizes that our attraction to machines like the iPhone may not contradict Harlow's theories, but they certainly support the behavioral theories of B.F. Skinner.

Skinner believed that we were all creatures of habit, returning again and again to that which rewards us. As Gomes (via Skinner) puts it, we are like pigeons trained to peck at buttons and paddles to get our food. Gomes claims that mobile devices are essentially neurotransmitter delivery devices that feed our need for stimulation, gratification, distraction, and entertainment.

So, perhaps our iPhones are not, in fact, altruistically agape lovers that give and give and never ask for anything in return (much like mothers) aside from requests for frequent recharging and multi-year contracts (also like mothers?).  If we believe Gomes, iPhones are simply pocket-sized Skinner boxes that reward us when we peck at them.

What do you think? Is your iPhone a surrogate mother, fulfilling real emotional and social needs, or is it nothing more than your own personal pigeon-pecking paddle?

And, while I'm asking questions, have you told your mother you love her recently? Did you show your love by buying her one of these top iPhone apps for Mother's Day?

Please leave a comment and let me know!

About the Author

Ron S. Doyle

Ron Doyle is a Denver-based freelance writer.

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