By Ingrid Sapona
Like most girls, growing up I played with dolls. And of
course, I had a Barbie. I don’t think they had themed Barbies back then, as
they do now (no Lifeguard Barbie, Surgeon Barbie, Surfer Barbie, and so on). I
guess I’d call mine the standard issue Barbie.
Though I’m sure I enjoyed endless hours with Barbie and her
friends, they weren’t my all-time favourite toys. That honour goes to a Mattel
toy called Tog’ls, which were building blocks that were kind of a variation on
Legos. I loved creating things with Tog’ls. Because I liked them so much, over
time my parents bought me additional sets, which greatly expanded the scope of
things I could build. I remembered feeling that the possibilities were endless…
Flash forward to a recent news report about Hello Barbie – a
new doll that’s set to debut later this year. According to the news story, what’s
new about this Barbie is she’ll be “interactive”. That description struck me as
odd, since I kind of figure all toys interactive. Well, at least those that
children actually play with are… But, turns
out, the 21st century definition of an interactive toy is a little
more finely honed than the type of interactive toy I played with.
According to the news story in the Toronto Star, Hello
Barbie uses WiFi and voice recognition technology, which means she can record
conversation and talk back. Because of the technology, she can mimic a
conversation between friends. The CEO of the company that created the
technology used in the doll describes Hello Barbie as a “highly controlled
Though Hello Barbie isn’t yet available, the reason she’s been
in the news already is because more than 5,000 folks have signed a petition
asking the toymaker to “yank the toy”.
Their concern – like the technology that is Hello Barbie’s DNA – is very
21st century. It’s about privacy, basically. These folks (presumably
parents) are concerned about the fact that the doll records, stores, and relays
things said to the doll.
As the clever opening line of the article implied – this
Barbie’s abilities could make her – well, basically – a spy. How might the
children’s intimate conversations with the doll be used? And what about things
parents and others say around the doll? Might those conversations also be
transmitted? And to whom?
To reassure parents, the toymaker has pointed out that the
dolls will not have a GPS chip (whew – one less worry – theoretically they won’t
be able to find your kid), and the doll won’t ask personal questions or collect
personal information. Also, the toymaker promises not to use the info they
collect for advertising, marketing, or publicity. How will parents know this?
Well, it’ll all be in the consent e-mail that parents will have to send. That’s
right – parents will have to consent to kids playing with the Barbie! Jeesh…
now the company will have the parents’ e-mail addresses too...
And, if all these “features” don’t make you wonder whether
Hello Barbie is a spy – here’s one other feature that I think lends credibility
to that notion: like any spy, she can be turned – made into a double agent, if
you will. Seems that parents will be able to access (and delete) the comments
their children make to Barbie. They’ll need a password do so, but still – an interesting
possibility, for those who wonder what their children are telling Barbie.
I’m sure the toymaker realized that Hello Barbie would cause
a stir. So, other than the fact that a bunch of tech folks must have thought it
would be cool to make such a doll, why would the company bother, I wondered.
Well, according to a company, the number one request they get from girls is
that they want to have a conversation with Barbie.
In thinking back to playing with my dolls, I probably did want
to have conversations with them. But the thing is, I am sure I had
conversations with Barbie. How else would I have known what to serve her during
tea parties, or what she wanted to wear to the prom? So what that Barbie
couldn’t really tell me these things – I didn’t need to actually hear her answers
to know! Mind you, growing up I also had an imaginary friend named Rosie. Well,
strictly speaking, Rosie wasn’t a friend – she was my (imaginary) maid. And oh
did I have some intimate conversations with Rosie! She was both someone I could
complain to about the injustices of having to make my bed or clean my room and someone I could blame for getting me
in trouble when she didn’t do such chores for me.
So, I guess my issues with Hello Barbie aren’t so much
related to what the doll can do – it’s more a concern about whether playing
with such clever toys might stifle children’s imaginations.
© 2015 Ingrid Sapona