David Stairs

Luco at music camp. I kept the phone.

The campaign began about nine months ago. From the beginning I was the primary target. I never had a chance. It wasn’t even a subtle assault. Mentioned with increasing frequency, insinuated into nearly every conversation, my thirteen year-old son managed to make his desire to have an iPhone known in no uncertain terms.

I was on the horns of a dilemma. My son has had a cellphone since he was eight or nine, at his Mom’s insistence, but this was different. As a millennial, he was risking falling behind his peer group. Just about to enter high school, he is a very active teen, but with a Facebook account that often goes ignored. Having a phone introduced him to the world of text messaging, but here again he wasn’t connected 24/7. The notion of watching my brilliant son morph into one of the smart phone trolls that inhabit my college classrooms was really troubling me. I wrote to his Mom asking, should I get him a laptop, or does he need a data plan? She did not respond. She had not been the primary target because our son knew what she would say. I felt trapped. What would my parents have done?

It turns out the world has changed a bit since my parents had to face such a question. When I was eleven I received my first transistor radio for my confirmation. It was a pretty General Electric that used a big nine-volt battery and, if memory serves, may have only worked on the AM band. The British invasion was about to happen, and I witnessed it first hand lying in bed at night with my earphone on. When I turned eighteen, I desperately wanted a stereo. I purchased one the summer after high school graduation and my Mother’s afternoon nap was never again as peaceful. But when I got to college, I was confronted by true audiophiles. My friends and I would visit the stereo store, comparing and contrasting the turntables, amps, and speakers. I became obsessed by “component envy.” Suddenly my stereo wasn’t good enough. This happens with nearly every consumer good. As one learns more about a new product or topic, one quickly realizes how little he actually knows, and how much effort it requires to become an expert.

Fortunately, I got over it. Long before I dropped any more money on new stereo equipment I concluded I would probably never be satisfied. Since then, my conflicts with product envy have been few and far between. Unfortunately, this does not translate to my young son. He is not there yet, in fact, at the moment, in his wide-eyed innocence, he is crazy for anything Apple. My friend Deena clued me in. She said she had been having trouble with the distraction of her cellphone ringing all time, but that it had suddenly dropped off right after she went swimming with it one day. So I went to the Sprint store with my kid and got him an iPhone 5 and a data plan. Then we went home and drew up a user contract, which included a little swimming. The first swimming interruption was a success. Luco went to music camp for eleven days. No electronic devices are permitted at camp. Residents communicate with the outside world via snail mail. This is intentional; it permits the students to spend their time thinking about, listening to, and participating in musical performance. My kid learned a lot. So everybody’s happy. My child has not yet become a phone drone. He seems to understand the limits of its value. I get to feel like I’m paying for my son to be a member of his generation, rather than paying him to check out of my life. And, of course, the phone company’s happy. That goes without saying. Thanks Deena! You were right, the water’s fine!

David Stairs is the founding editor of Design-Altruism-Project.