Commentary – Toy Story

Tom Henihan

Parents are always watchful of their children, especially when their kids are very young. They are mindful that the crib in which their child sleeps is safe, that the car seat their child rides in is up to code, and as they grow, parents are judicious about the homes their children visit and the friends they keep. It is, in most cases, a matter of constant vigilance.

In our hyper-connected world parents may no longer be the only ones keeping vigil, as they now have to reckon with the reality that the toy in their child’s hands has the capacity to see and hear, to watch and listen.

A toy called the “Ask Amy Doll” is an excellent example of the intrusiveness of technology, where no one is too young to be swept up in the literal and metaphoric net.

The “Ask Amy Doll,” described as “talking, interactive, singing, storytelling and smart” is also touted as being educational. The claim that a toy is “educational,” implies that it is not just cute and completely benign but also instructive, which is supposed to mitigate all other considerations.

The Amy doll, like many other toys currently available, is of course a Bluetooth connected, inanimate device masquerading as the child’s best friend and confidant, capable of responding to the questions the child asks with Google type answers.

Apart from the doll co-opting the role of parents in answering a child’s questions, the toy is also vulnerable to hacking, and those infiltrations can range from the blatantly sinister to mercenary commercial interests grooming the child as a consumer.

The world may have changed but the human condition has not. Normally, it is through their imaginations that children imbue their toys with life: a personality, a name, a back-story and send them on adventures.

If the toy is programmed to respond, the child’s imagination is cut from the equation and he or she is deprived of the process of using archetypes and role-playing, which are essential to social, creative and intellectual development. This is the fundamental, enduring educational value of children playing with toys and it existed for millennia, long before the advent of technology and the internet.

While toys may be models of things in the contemporary world, the world that a child is born into and in which he or she will develop, the function of those toys should serve the same function they always have. That is by allowing children, while having fun, to express themselves vicariously through different persona, through that process discover things about themselves and cultivate their own identity.

Sitting on their living room floor playing with dolls, superheroes, spaceships, trucks and other toys should be one phase in a person’s life that is autonomous, unconditional and free from the lure and intrusions of the internet.

Given how interconnected our world is and by necessity how increasingly reliant on the internet we have become, it might be prudent to allow children, at least during their early development, to remain free of the internet and the manipulations of so-called “educational” toys.

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