Today’s New York Times has a fascinating article about Amazing Amanda, a doll that can apparently recognize voices, identify objects around it and even show rudimentary emotions. Built atop technologies like speech recognition and RFID radio frequency identification tags and even facial robotics, am I the only parent in the world who finds this all rather creepy?
On the one hand, the use of technology is brilliant – having RFID tags in each of the toys that are included with Amazing Amanda lets the doll recognize which toy the child is presenting to it, for example – but there’s a deeper question here of what’s happening to childhood as technology slowly but inexorably overtakes imagination.
This is a central theme for Waldorf Schools too, actually, and a visit to a Waldorf home shows a lot more emphasis on wooden blocks and non-anatomically-correct dolls, for example, than video games, crude doll robotics and similar. In our home, for example, blank paper and lots of different colors of paint are a much loved substitute for a paint-by-numbers page with a specific correlation of number to hue or color on a palette.
I think it’s straightforward: the more sophisticated and seemingly intelligent that toys are, the more they lead the play and interaction, the less that the child has to do, the less it encourages their imagination, and ultimately the less imaginative and creative the child becomes as they grow. Teachers can always spot which children watch a lot of TV, for example, because those kids act out what they saw on TV in their play, while other children create and invent games on the spot.
Looked at from this perspective, it’s rather disturbing to read the NYT article, where the author notes that “video games and interactive robots… have long been successful in capturing the imaginations… of preteenage and adolescent boys” and, quoting industry analyst David Riley, “I think girls have more active imaginations than boys do when it comes to play”.
Even that mainstay of commercial parenting culture Parents Magazine says, in its article How to Nurture Your Child’s Imagination, that you should “Participate in creative projects. Studies have found that children whose parents participate in creative play with them develop broader vocabularies and more flexible thinking skills.”
The point I’m trying to make is that imagination is all about being able to improvise and project onto an inanimate object, to be able to create something from nothing or, perhaps, from something else. But the more our toys and games force our children into a literal, tangible world, into facing toys that are ‘animate’ objects, the less our children will have imagination.
And a world where children have their play determined for them by programmers in toy factories sounds oddly like some terrible dystopian future to me.
What do you think?