The most important thing

Mattel has a brand new doll they want to sell your daughter. It’s called Hello Barbie, and it takes the classic American doll to a whole new level. This new Barbie uses WiFi and speech recognition, records the voice of the doll’s owner and then, using cloud servers and voice recognition software, sends responses back through the doll’s built-in speaker which allow little girls to have conversations with their Barbie. At a toy fair in New York a Mattel presenter said that the Hello Barbie can “have a unique relationship with each girl.” According to an article by Julie Borg, the doll will be able to “play interactive games, tell jokes, initiate storytelling, and listen and learn about each girl’s preferences and then adapt accordingly.”

A Washington Post article about the doll said, “a Mattel representative introduced the newest version of Barbie [at the New York toy fair] by saying: ‘Welcome to New York, Barbie.’ The doll, named Hello Barbie, responded: ‘I love New York! Don’t you? Tell me, what’s your favorite part about the city? The food, fashion or the sights?'” Not surprisingly then, the Washington Post article was titled, “Privacy advocates try to keep ‘creepy,’ ‘eavesdropping’ Hello Barbie from hitting the shelves.” A CNN story was headlined, “Talking Barbie is too ‘creepy’ for some parents.” Borg’s article in WORLD was subtitled “New interactive Barbie blurs privacy lines.”

This excerpt from the Post article explains where the “creepy” part comes in for most people: “Hello Barbie works by recording a child’s voice with an embedded microphone that is triggered by pressing a button on the doll. As the doll ‘listens,’ audio recordings travel over the Web to a server where the snippets of speech are recognized and processed. That information is used to help form Hello Barbie’s responses.”

The doll is not scheduled to be available for sale until the fall, and the companies involved with it–Mattel and ToyTalk, the company that manufactures the software in the doll–are planning to develop privacy policies before then. Already, though, a Mattel spokesperson says, “Mattel is committed to safety and security, and ‘Hello Barbie’ conforms to applicable government standards, including the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.” Interestingly enough, the technology in the doll could be used both by the toy company and by parents to “spy” on children. ToyTalk says, “Parents can choose to receive daily or weekly e-mails with access to the audio files of their children’s conversations with Hello Barbie.” Most parents do not listen in to every conversation their children have with their toys. Part of childhood’s wonder is the ability to pretend and talk to one’s toys–that, until now, have not been able to talk back. How will the ability to listen in to those conversations impact parent’s relationships with their children? This eavesdropping could have potentially positive results, but it is not difficult to imagine potentially dangerous ones, too. Then, too, there is the potential danger of someone other than the parent accessing the recordings, either by hacking the parents e-mail or the company web site, and using the information contained in the recordings to cultivate a relationship with the child.

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood has already created a petition demanding that Mattel scrap the doll because of the potential for using it to market directly to children. The doll could be used to plant the idea that children ask their parents for Barbie accessories, for example, the group claims. “Kids using ‘Hello Barbie’ aren’t only talking to a doll, they are talking directly to a toy conglomerate whose only interest in them is financial,” said Susan Linn, the group’s director.

Creepy though the technology and capabilities of the doll may be, it is not difficult to understand how we got to this point. “Sales of Barbie have plummeted recently, while demand for children’s apps and online games has exploded. Children are forging their digital footprint earlier than ever, forcing parents to make thorny decisions about what kinds of technology limits to put in place during playtime,” the Washington Post reported. With more and more parents giving their children virtually unlimited access to anything the Internet has to offer, through iPads, smart phones and more, one cannot fault Mattel for finding ways to combine the latest in technological capability with their best-selling toy for young girls. Still, that does not mean the doll is a good idea.

The concerns described above are legitimate and need to be taken seriously. Borg highlights another danger, though, when she emphasizes in her article the fact that the technology contained in the doll will serve only to further separate children from real-life interactions and relationships. She points out that in their touting of the doll’s benefits, Mattel claims that the doll can eventually become a girl’s best friend. Dipesh Navsaria, a pediatrician and board member of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, said, “Computer algorithms can’t replace, and should not displace, the nuanced responsiveness of caring people interacting with one another. Children’s well-being and healthy development demand relationships and conversations with real people and real friends.” We live in a culture that is already celebrating the pseudo-relationships facilitated by the convenience of instant digital communication. People send text messages to teachers when their children will be late for school, teens ask their friends for relationship advice via Facebook messaging and they spread rumors and gossip via Facebook posts. Courts have ruled that divorce papers can be served via Facebook, too. There are real dangers in abandoning genuine interpersonal relationships in favor of those that exist only in the cyber realm. People say things through keyboards they would never say to someone’s face–but that is only one of the myriad dangers that exist when one interacts with the world almost exclusively through technology.

I do not fault Mattel or ToyTalk for pursuing the creation of Hello Barbie, and I am sure that other toy companies will soon have their own offerings that incorporate this interactive technology. Again, though, that does not mean it is a good idea, and, personally, I would strongly caution parents against buying this doll for their daughters. I will not be signing any petitions opposing the release of the toy, nor do I think banning its sale is necessary. Mattel is a company driven by profit. If the doll doesn’t sell well, they will quit selling it. If your daughter still plays with Barbie’s try buying her one that doesn’t talk back, then get down on the floor and play Barbies with her–letting her and you create the voices and conversations yourselves. No tech companies will listen in, no advertising with be slipped into the conversation, and the relationship between your daughter and you will be strengthened. That’s the most important thing of all.

Interesting applications?

On August 29 an article by John Brandon appeared on FoxNews.com. The article was entitled, “Is there a microchip implant in your future?” The article’s lead paragraph offers several ways in which said implant could make life simpler…safer, even. For example, you could pass through airport security with your identity being transmitted via your implant, or “it can help you buy groceries at Wal Mart.” Possibly, the implant could help save your life should you ever find yourself kidnapped in a foreign country.

Brandon writes, “Microchip implants like the ones pet owners use to track their dogs and cats could become commonplace in humans in the next decade.” That simple statement is one that I find incredibly alarming, and I suspect most people will agree. Brandon lists potential advantages as including the quick location of a missing or kidnapped child or of soldiers or journalists in war zones. While those are possible advantages, there are also, of course, many possible disadvantages. During the last presidential campaign season Republican Ron Paul was mostly mocked when he pointed out that a suggested national identification card that might be used to address immigration issues could just as easily be misused by the government against U.S. citizens. The reality, though, is that such misuse is entirely possible, and the potential danger of such misuse is exponentially higher with a microchip implanted into a person than with any kind of identification card.

Brandon’s article cites Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, an author and scholar, as saying that implanted microchips could be “less intrusive than some emerging ID systems which rely on physical biometrics (like your fingerprints or unique eye pattern).” While that argument could no doubt be made, and probably convincingly, it fails to take into consideration the fact that my fingerprints or unique eye pattern (with a retinal scan, for instance) are only usable when I offer them or, in the case of fingerprints, leave them behind. Would it be easier to walk through some unseen detection system that reads my implant and immediately grants me access to a restricted area than to pause, place my eye against some kind of scanner and wait for it to read my retina? Probably. But I think I’ll take the retinal scan every time, thank you, because it is up to me whether I want to submit myself to that scan or not.

While Brandon’s article cites all kinds of possible advantages for crime fighting and security that could be provided with the implants, it seems to me that an implant could quite possibly be easier to steal than fingerprints or retinas. Maybe I’ve seen too many spy moves and crime thrillers in which complex security systems must be foiled, but if all that is necessary is for someone to have the chip that is inside me I cannot imagine it bothering them to make a small incision and remove it if that chip is going to get them whatever it is they are wanting (and they have already demonstrated a willingness to get it through illegal means). The article informs us that the chips are “easy to install and remove, and, because they are implanted under the skin, they are unobtrusive.” Unobtrusive is good…easy to remove may not be when considering the possible criminal applications of these devices.

Brandon also writes that these microchips are being used “to manage farm animals. Farmers can track sheep, pigs and horses as they move through a gate, weigh them instantly and make sure they are eating properly.” For the farmer or rancher that may be terrific. But do I really want someone–anyone–to have the ability to track me as I move anywhere, to weigh me instantly or make sure that I am eating properly? Do I want anyone to be able to do any of the myriad other things that an implanted chip would allow? And, by the way, am I the only one troubled by the idea that if it works for livestock it surely must be a good idea for humans? Such “logic” is a step onto a very dangerous way of thinking indeed.

The article further states that implants are “normally” only useful within a short range, meaning they could not be used to track people unless there was “an infrastructure of transponders scattered around a city that read their identity in public buildings and street corners.” There are two things about this statement that I find exceedingly troubling. First, the word “normally” indicates that there are exceptions; if trying to still concerns about possible abuses of this technology, “normally” is a poor word choice! Secondly, given the ever-expanding presence of cameras in cities around the world–for the purpose of fighting crime, of course–I do not find that stretches credulity at all to imagine that “an infrastructure of transponders” could easily be “scattered around a city.”

Other possible uses Brandon identifies? “If children were chipped, teachers could take attendance in the classroom.” Um, no thank you. It doesn’t take so long to put eyes on a child, or even to call names and have children respond “here” that we need to facilitate the taking of attendance by means of microchips. What else, then? “Police could track cars and read data without needing to scan license plates.” Again, I think I’ll pass, thanks. There are ample abuses of the technology that exists already, but various government agencies; the idea of giving them even stronger technology with greater potential for abuse is not appealing in the least. A final possible use Brandon suggests: “[I]f you walk into a donut shop, the owner could read your taste preferences (glazed or not glazed) without needing a loyalty card.” Beyond the idea that I find this ridiculous and not even close to being a need, this would serve only to create even more disconnect between humans–something we have more than enough of as it is.

To his credit, Brandon does include a few possible abuses of the technology and questions as to whether not implanting chips in humans is ethical. Among the potential abuses mentioned are someone “hacking into the infrastructure and stealing your identity to invading your privacy and knowing your driving habits.” Brandon even talked to Troy Dunn who has a show on TNT in which he attempts to locate missing persons. While he said microchip technology would likely make his job easier, he is “strongly against the practice for most people.” He said he would support the use of chips for “convicted felons while in prison and on parole; for sex offenders forever; and for children if parents opt in.”

Stu Lipoff, a spokesman for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, said, “People might find it a bit unsavory, but if it is not used to track you, and apart from the privacy issues, there are many interesting applications.” No doubt; but these are major “ifs” and “apart froms,” ones far bigger than I would be willing to toss out. Saying “if it is not used to track you, and apart from the privacy issues” is akin to asking, “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?” Sometimes the potential upside cannot even come close to the probably downside.

Interestingly enough, Brandon ended his article with this statement about the microchips: “At least it’s better than having a barcode stitched into our foreheads.” Yeah, probably so–less obtrusive an all that. But the implication is the same. Scripture makes it clear that there will come a day when the government requires a “mark” for buying and selling. Don’t be surprised if it takes the form of an implanted microchip.