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Page Four (of Four)


Shaped by Our Toys

What can we expect from the Toys-R-Us shelves of tomorrow? The fact that Stambler's harsh critique applies to some of the most well-intentioned technologists in the toy business may ultimately be the most unnerving observation of all. Most of the toys of tomorrow, of course, will be as mindless and developmentally useless as most of the toys of today. A survey of Toy Fair's other high-tech entrants last year, though, raises the prospect that, because of the inherently captivating qualities of electronics, tomorrow's bad toys will be much, much worse. Exhibits A, B, and C: Toymax's "Mighty Mo" X-Treme Force S-10 Pick Up, whose wireless key ring revs the engine and activates the car alarm; YES! Entertainment's hand-held "Yak" sound-effects

I'm afraid, even as an avid computer user, that if quasi-conscious electronic toys do begin to pervade our social space, something dear may be lost to us all.

machines, which spit out an endless stream of distorted snarls, howls, and screams; and Play-Tech's "IQ Builders" series Professor Giggles, "the talking electronic toy that makes sentence structure (subject, object, verb) fun."

Erik Erikson, in his landmark 1950 book Childhood and Society, proposed that every culture socializes its children to uphold that culture's core values. What premier social value are we promoting with today's orgy of licensed character toys and electronic gizmos? In a word, Stambler says, consumerism. "Toys like these stunt creativity, make people dependent on animated objects to bring meaning into their lives, and make them constantly dependent on upgrades."

If we are already awash in consumerism, how bad could the future of toys really be? There is always a danger of gratuitous romanticism when we contemplate our future infrastructure -- of reminiscing about the good old days that never were, instinctively fearing the richer, more complex world ahead simply because it is unknown. On the other hand, there is also the corresponding danger of pining for a world that can never be, cavalierly trading in the enormous achievements of the past and present for a look behind curtain number two. Our consumer culture may suffer from a confusion over life's priorities, but the good news is that, by and large, we already know as a society how to raise highly verbal, curious, and intelligent children. The ingredients for doing this turn out to be surprisingly low-tech -- parents and their surrogates spending lots of individual time with kids, speaking to them very early on, playing music for them, providing a measure of security while allowing a measure of independence. There are many pitfalls, of course, and many children receive far from an ideal upbringing. But today's developmental deficits have little to do with the inability of children to master abstract mathematical thinking at a very early age.

As a first-time parent I have been struck repeatedly by the degree to which child-rearing is not, as I once thought, about raising the brainiest or most-athletic or most-musical children. Now that I actually have to make these choices, I find instead that I want to raise a confident, curious, patient, personable, humble, ambitious, generous, adaptable human being. Throughout the research of this piece I found my parental intuition regularly confirming Monty Stambler's wariness of the high-tech, pre-packaged entertainment units. Some of the more thoughtful toys of tomorrow will no doubt help to enlighten and provoke young minds into ways of thinking that are largely unavailable to my generation. But I'm confident that they will do nothing to advance the causes of child development that I now find myself passionately, paternalistically concerned with. And I'm afraid, even as an avid computer user, that if quasi-conscious electronic toys do begin to pervade our social space, something dear may be lost to us all. The great challenge of our age is to enjoy the benefits of technological advance without getting caught up in all of its tangles. As old toys become smarter, new toys become possible, and all toys become connected, we may discover that children adapt all too well to the souls of their new machines.


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David Shenk, the author of Data Smog (1997), lives in Brooklyn. A collection of his essays on science and technology will be published next fall.

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