Toys, AI, and Evil 80s Snakemen

With respect to Mattel’s new talking Barbie, I’ll make one observation: saying a toy like this has “artificial intelligence” is like calling the doll itself an “artificial person.” Technically true. But come on already.

I want to pivot to a different point. In his write-up of the new Barbie, James Vlahos poses the following question:

Anyone who has watched a child have an animated conversation with a doll — or a stuffed animal, a toy car or a Lego brick for that matter — has probably wondered what that child is really thinking. As the pioneering developmental psychologist Jean Piaget wrote in his book ‘‘The Child’s Conception of the World,’’ published in 1929, ‘‘Does the child attribute consciousness to the objects which surround him, and in what measure?’’

Is that really such a headscratcher? Vlahos isn’t just talking about early toddlers; his article focuses on kids who are six, seven, eight years old. Don’t most adults remember what it was like to be that age? Don’t you? Maybe you don’t remember what kind of cake you had for your seventh birthday, but you must remember how the world felt, how it seemed, how it spoke and breathed: the subjective signature of life.

I certainly remember. And I can tell you this: the question “Do you believe your toys are conscious” wouldn’t have had much meaning to me. It would have been like asking a praying man, “Why are you murmuring to the empty air? Do you believe that God is in the empty air?” The praying man could easily answer, “Yes, of course I do.” He could just as easily answer, “No, of course I don’t.” The question is badly phrased.

So with children, who are natural mystics. When I was young, all things seemed to be conscious–or rather, all things suggested the pervasive presence of consciousness. Life was a long conversation with unseen spirits, who often chose to speak in vague ways. A storm wasn’t merely a weather event. It meant something, communicated something. It spoke.

Why beat around the bush? I still feel this way. But as an adult, I’ve been trained to control the feeling. I know to say that the storm is caused by meteorological events, and to dismiss any mystical thoughts I might have as superstition.

Anthropologists used to say that civilized men use reason to interpret the world, while savages are mired in childish superstition. Better to acknowledge that when it comes to interpreting complex events, adults in all cultures grow accustomed to parroting whatever explanations they’ve been handed. That’s not true of children. They dare to invent explanations of their own.

A pertinent example. When I was seven or eight, I coveted the grotesque little dolls called action figures. I knew that they were made and sold by toy companies. I didn’t care. What mattered to me was that they were made by adults, and I figured that adults must have  a pretty good reason for making such peculiar things. Why would a team of adults put hours and hours of effort into making little plastic sculptures of evil-looking snakemen? Someone, some older person with more experience of the world, had dreamed these things up. So where did the dreams come from? What did they mean?

If you think about it, those aren’t such bad questions.

Now, as an adult, I know how I’m supposed to answer those questions. I’m supposed to say that the little plastic sculptures of evil snakemen I collected in the 1980s were created for the sake of satisfying something called “the profit motive.” They were designed by teams of toiling, disinterested wage peons to satisfy business executives responding to the recommendations of market analysts. I’m supposed to accept that the comic books and box art packaged with these toys–not to mention the associated movies and cartoon shows–aren’t really stories or artworks in the conventional sense, but highly elaborated forms of things called “advertisements.” And I’m supposed to know that the distinguishing feature of an advertisement is that it doesn’t really mean anything at all. It’s not meant to communicate an important message, or inspire profound emotions, or encapsulate deeper truths. It’s just supposed to stimulate a certain behavior: buy, buy, buy.

But that’s not all. I’m also supposed to accept that this explanation for the existence of plastic snakemen figures is not only the real story, but a potentially instructive story–that collecting plastic snakemen may be silly and childish behavior, but that making and marketing and selling them is respectable adult behavior. I’m also supposed to know that while filling your house with plastic snakemen is ridiculous, filling it with plaster Madonnas or Van Gogh paintings or British novels or shrines to Ganesha is deeply meaningful. I’m supposed to understand that the religious and cultural objects were created to convey profound thoughts, while the plastic snakemen were created only for the sake of making money.

In short, though I still see all these objects as products of deliberate human industry, of planning, of effort, of calculation–as parts of a cultural story, as containers of consciousness–the kind of consciousness they signify comes predefined. The plaster Madonnas represent theological statements about the meaning of life. The Van Gogh paintings represent something called “artistic genius,” or if you want to get picky about it, romanticism or expressionism. The British novels are not merely escapist entertainment; they’re a way of giving oneself important mental exercise.

I can tell you that I definitely did not see things this way as a child. I knew that other people did. I knew that my parents, for instance, thought that the toys I loved were trivial pieces of junk. But their attitude struck me as irrelevant, even naive. If I could have put my childish feelings into adult language, I might have said something like this:

You say that the toy industry is all about making money. But if that’s the case, why do thousands of people work so hard at making this stuff? Why do all the toys seem to have so much personality? Why do they look so scary, so strange, sometimes beautiful? Why do they all come with stories about brave people triumphing over evil, or performing great deeds, or bonding with friends, or exploring tantalizing mysteries? Why do the packages have such dramatic paintings? Why do armies of people spend countless hours churning out little plastic fetishes that collectively hint at the existence of a strange, multifarious dreamworld, more lurid and lavish and exciting than our own? 

Playing with the toys, talking to them, holding them and examining them, inventing personalities and adventures for them, was a way of playing with answers to those questions–though of course I never would have said as much. I assumed that everything came down to similar questions. Why is it possible to imagine things that don’t exist? Why do certain experiences evoke certain feelings? Why does everything in the world, from trees to animals to objects and other people, seem to be infused with so much hidden meaning?

If you could boil modern civilization down to one slogan, it would probably be this: IT DOESN’T REALLY MEAN ANYTHING. All imagination, we’re taught, is deceptive, and all meaning is illusion. Growing up doesn’t just mean abandoning your toys. It means abandoning fantasy entirely–accepting that “real” explanations are always causal and mechanical.

Here’s the riddle that got us started: “Anyone who has watched a child have an animated conversation with a doll,” Klahos writers “… has probably wondered what that child is really thinking.”

Frankly, I think the real puzzle is why adults are moved to pose such a question.

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