As we learn at The Conversation:

At the top of some children’s Christmas present wish list this year will be the new Hello Barbie doll.

Mattel’s latest doll connects to the internet via Wi-Fi and uses interactive voice response (IVR) to effectively converse with children. When the doll’s belt button is pushed, conversations are recorded and uploaded to servers operated by Mattel’s partner, ToyTalk.

Hello Barbie tries to engage with children in intelligible and free-flowing conversation by asking and responding to questions, as well as being able to learn about its users over time.

Why would anyone want a corporation using their kid in this type of market research? Because the doll at least talks to the kid?

Maybe. In an age of ever more helicopter parenting of ever fewer children with an ever diminishing amount of time to spare for them away from one’s career, maybe no one else does.

And for those who also don’t have time to listen to the kid,

But Hello Barbie doesn’t just reveal a child’s private conversations to large corporations, and potentially law enforcement agencies. She also tells tales much closer to home: to parents.

A smartphone app enables parents to listen to the conversations between their child and their Hello Barbie. They can also receive alerts when new recordings become available, and can access and review the audio files. More.

And share them.

So the kid doesn’t even know anyone is listening to her. Never mind that many of them are strangers, with whatever motives. Cute.

One problem is that even analysts who are concerned about the practice of constant electronic eavesdropping on kids seem to accept some of the basic premises of an unfree society:

As one reporter found, Hello Barbie prompts those conversing with her to divulge information about themselves, but when the focus is on her she quickly changes the subject to invariably gender-normative subjects and fashion.

Of course… because she’s Barbie!

Barbie, who has been around since 1959, is a “character” toy like Darth Vader. Or Dora the Explorer. Characters are expected to behave in certain ways, and not necessarily only in approved ways.

And yes, Barbie is an ageless airhead. I remember a children’s television program my kids watched in the early 1980s that openly made fun of her on that account.

Both Barbie and her critics were fine with me. But I resented the feminist thought police who sounded the alarm as if her character wasn’t quite obvious to everyone, even kids.

Anyone who did take Barbie seriously was making a choice. She certainly didn’t stop the feminist movement in any event, any more than playing with Pinocchio puppets as a child would encourage us to overturn laws against perjury.

Years ago, I was a consultant for literature programs in public schools, and had to deal with a teacher who did not want fairy tales taught in younger grades because they showed women and girls as “helpless, waiting to be rescued.”

I pointed out that one of the most famous of such tales is Puss in Boots, in which the dorky young hero owes his excellent fortune in life to his cat.

There are also many tales featuring resourceful girls (Morgiana, in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, comes to mind). With thousands of such tales available worldwide, balance is easily achieved. Unfortunately, I find by experience that many education activists have a harder time with balance than most children do. Some resort to brainwashing instead. And now there is electronic eavesdropping too.

Which brings us back to the main point – would a Dora snitch really be any better than a Barbie snitch?

If the kid was given a transgender Ken snitch instead of the classic clothes horse, “gender-normative” Barbie, would the same concerned people want the Ken doll compulsory in all playrooms? To monitor whether children are learning to appreciate “diversity in all its forms”?

I don’t know, so let’s go back to the immediate problem: the fact that well-to-do parents can buy everything for their kid except their time. That’s a choice. A choice everyone involved will have to live with for the rest of their lives.

See also: Orwell’s vs. Huxley’s dystopias (1984 vs. Brave New World). Unsettlingly, Orwell is gaining on Huxley


Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...