Your Fantasies are My Fantasies

Somewhere in the bowels of the Mattel Corporation sits a disgruntled science-fiction writer. Frustrated over decades of rejected manuscripts, he now molds his most perverse ideas into those 11.5" plastic torsos that we know as Barbie.  As a synthetic female, Barbie has always been at the center of various second and third wave firestorms.  But in the 21st century, she aspires to be an ambassador of dystopic posthumanism.  A bad role model for little girls?  With the new generation of Barbies, we'll fondly remember the day when all anyone had to worry about was whether or not her plastic stilts would support her plastic lady humps. 

Case in point: Hello Barbie.  

In her new Big Data incarnation, Hello Barbie comes equipped with a microphone and wi-fi connection, allowing her to record the words (and thus fantasy play) of her owner and then upload this "data" into the Cloud.  Ostensibly, this storage of the child's speech allows the doll to craft an interactive repertoire of banter, thus "personalizing" the experience and essentially "imprinting" the doll on the owner's personality.  

Where to begin?

Most of the alarm sounded so far centers on "privacy" issues, but that's just a smokescreen for the more disturbing exchange at work here; namely, the use of childhood fantasy as a data set for tweaking a lifetime of future marketing. Even at their most despondent, Marx and Engels probably couldn't have foreseen a day when capitalism would expand its markets by reaching directly into the heads of little girls, extracting their private fantasy lives in order to better program the future parameters of fantasy itself.  

There is nothing data fascists hate more than the idea that a person--child, teen, or adult--might still possess a fortressed interiority that remains beyond the grasp of empirical quantification.  In this respect, Hello Barbie may be only the first in a series of devices designed to "trick" the user into confiding otherwise private marketing information (beyond the reams of material one already willingly surrenders through random encounters with "click-bait."

Hello Barbie is a brash intervention, to be sure, but not entirely unpredictable.  We long ago outsourced our fantasy lives to the cultural industries, so it is only appropriate that marketers in the service of cultural commodities would eventually try to map taste and desire in its most formative moments.  The Holy Grail would be an algorhithm that can predict a fetus' consumption patterns while still in the womb, allowing the infant to emerge into the world, not as a nascent subject struggling toward some approximation of selfhood, but as an evolving target triggering a preplanned sequence of marketing campaigns.  Timmy turns 3 today--initiate powder-blue-jumper subroutine 7-A.  

Mattel claims Hello Barbie will "imprint" on its child custodian to provide a uniquely interactive experience.  But we all know how computers and capitalism work. If Hello Barbie can upload your child's speech into the Cloud, it can also download directives straight from Mattel.  And if Mattel produces too many Nimbie the Blue Unicorn units, what is to stop Hello Barbie from prattling on endlessly about how much she'd like to have Nimbie the Blue Unicorn as her new special friend?  Nothing, that's what. When kids used to beg for things they saw on TV, one could at least try to distract them until their tiny addled minds landed somewhere else.  But what power will parents have once Hello Barbie spends every night on your kid's pillow, whispering sweet marketing nothings into her ear for eight hours straight?  
We agree on everything....EVERYTHING. 
The mercenary aspects of Hello Barbie are disturbing enough, but so too are the implications for adult psychical development.  As props for fantasy play, dolls have traditionally served as objects for rehearsing various identities and the mechanics of social interaction.  As thrift store hunters know well, many kids arrive at a moment when they decide Barbie must receive a new!  Here is a classic moment of old-style classic resistance with a progressive "R" as little Janie decides Malibu Barbie the surfer girl would look much better with a mullet.

But what hope for such interventions will there be once the child, through Hello Barbie's parrot-like imprinting, is basically involved in a conversation with her or himself?  More valuable would be a doll that listens to your fantasy life and then constantly argues with you about it.  So you want to be a princess, do you?  Yeah, well you and about a million other girls. Princesses are dumb and they make you be stupid. Why don't you think about becoming a neurosurgeon instead?

Things might turn out even worse, however. Imagine an entire generation of kids who, barely on this side of the Symbolic, are immediately taken hostage by a doll that simply echoes whatever desires and fantasies the child has cultivated up until the age of purchase. These kids will be doomed to become like those creepy twins who invent their own languages, dress in matching crinoline, and stand alone at the edge of the playground smiling at their own private plans to murder everyone.  

Believe it or not, there is an analog precedent for this mad scheme.  At some point in the 1960s, a "Miss Rosemary Rice" recorded "The Talking Record for Girls."   As the cover art suggests, the record "engages the child in conversation" by asking her various questions and --through the interactive miracle of pausing a few seconds-- gives the child a chance to respond (if you'd like to talk to this record, please click here).

As conversations go, the entire exchange remains rather benign. But more importantly, if Mom and Dad actually left the child alone, none of her answers were recorded or even overhead.  So, when Rosemary asks the child if she has any brothers or sisters, she can answer, "Yes, and I want them all dead," without attracting any unnecessary disciplinary or psychiatric intervention (I don't have a brother or sister, but I can imagine there is something in Piaget about wanting all your rivals for food, attention, and toys DEAD--we are talking about fantasy life, after all). 

Incredibly, Hello Barbie allows parents to sign up for a weekly email that allows them to download all of their child's conversations with the doll over the past seven days. Any stray moment of "abnormal" fantasy thus has the potential to trigger various interventions, protocols, and psychopharmacological regimens.  If your daughter repeatedly asks for protractors, compasses, and surgical knives so that she might perfectly bisect all the dolls she keeps in a pretend jail under her bed, you might have a problem.  But every little kid is going to say something at some point that will strike many as "disturbed."  Usually this form of play remains hidden and eventually evaporates in the move toward somewhat normative socialization.  But with Hello Barbie, no "abnormality" shall go uncatalogued.

Over at, an attempt has been made to calm the paranoid.

While it's true that Hello Barbie can record and transmit household conversations, the same could be said for nearly every smartphone, almost all newer televisions, and a number of other personal gadgets. Hello Barbie's interactivity may have alarmed some parents, but it is similar to voice recognition features included on many popular technological devices and by itself presents no more risk or exposure than an iPad or a smart TV. 

So, take heart, everything else in your home can listen to you and send data up into the cloud, so why should you care if your kid's Barbie can do so as well.  

Happily for those who hope to keep the data-miners at bay just outside their kid's skull, Mattel's scheme may face a court challenge.  All of these issues are best summarized in the video below, courtesy of Adult Swim, which it would behoove you to watch before it's too late. 

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