On being … better than Barbie

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 experience”.

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


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