(a version of this essay appeared in Civilization Magazine Oct/Nov 1998)
My mother disliked batteries — and detested the toys that required them. The electrically-induced racket and kinetics struck her as cheap distractions, unwelcome intrusions into the free exercise of childhood imagination. Like TV, these gizmos rewarded passivity — and the fragility of their circuits made broken hearts and a quick trip to the landfill inevitable.
Mom was heartened by PCs and the Internet, but she would be horrified by what is on the horizon. While parents alternately marvel and fret over the impact of the Internet on their teenagers, the Internet generation’s younger siblings are welcoming something quite new and very different from email into their lives — primitive electronic lifeforms. The egg-shaped Tamogochi is the first of these new companions, an instant hit that has already spawned myriad imitations. More sophisticated critters are also appearing on toy store shelves, including Actimates Barney, a computer-controlled plush toy that interacts with its human playmate while both are watching Barney videos. It is rumored that a Tele-Tubby version is in the works for the under-two set. And of course, Furbys are this year’s Christmas craze.
The animating force in these neo-companions is something far more frightening than mere batteries — microprocessors. Once upon a time, microprocessors were so scarce and expensive that they only entered our lives hidden in big, expensive PC boxes. Now chips are so much more powerful, ubiquituous, and disposable-lighter cheap that they are getting stuffed into everyting imaginable, including toys. The dumb, battery-driven toy electrons that so annoyed my mother in the 1960s are now smart and getting smarter at the speed of Moore’s Law. Today’s Furbys will be clunky antiques within 12 months, and the useful lives of the neo-companions to follow will be equally short, replaced by waves of successively more capable and seductive contrivances. A Cambrian explosion of neo-companions is underway, and Tomogochis are but the Trilobites.
The good news is that even though they were born just yesterday, today’s kids aren’t fooled. The Tomogochi craze is fading, and to the relief of horrified parents, the Furby fad is unlikely to last any longer than the Cabbage Patch frenzy of some years ago. But the advent of these neo-companions has changed childhood reality as fundamentally as TV did in the early 1950s. Pre-schoolers now take it for granted that they can have non-biological buddies which no longer rely on imagination to animate them. As members of this generation grow up, they will assume –no, expect– that they will be accompanied on life’s journey by ever more capable artificial life-forms. This is a far cry from today’s twenty-somethings, who still think that computer revolutions come in a box, and farther yet from moss-back parents who can recall a time when video games did not exist.
The temptation to wonder at the consequences of this shift is irresistable. What does a child learn about life and death by nurturing a tomogochi? Certainly the virtual death of a software lifeform is preferable to the real sacrifice of myriad pet turtles, rats and brine shrimp “sea monkeys” by earlier generations, but does a Tomogochi death teach the virtues of interdependence, or imply that death has no consequence, that one grieves and then pushes the reset button to reincarnate the computer life and start again. Will socializing with a cyber-Barney prepare a child for interaction with other humans, or cause them to retreat to the comfort of attentive machines when faced with the unexpected complexity of human behavior?
In short, will these devices provide a healthy simulation, training wheels for eventual interaction with the real world, or an unhealthy retreat from messy everyday reality? The lessons from earlier technologies are deeply ambiguous. Television is a potent discovery tool, but an even more potent time-sink, serving up parent-fretting violence and vapid contentless drivel. Meanwhile, the vast wasteland of TV threatens to be overwhelmed by the vaster wasteland of cyberspace, an Internet landscape of awesome educational and social power that is also a convivial environment for criminals, pornographers and scam artists. Technologies mirror the cultures that create them, so it is no surprise that the Internet reflects both what we desire and what we detest in our society. The coming world of electronic lifeforms is likely to be no different.
The good news is that while the first neo-companions have arrived, once the novelty wears off, they are little better than their non-computer antecedents. Even Tamogochi require ample imagination to turn the stylized screen character into something one might want to nurture. And Animates Barney can’t fool three year olds for very long before they realize it is all just another cyber-hoax foisted on them by well-intentioned but bumbling adults.
The bad news is that microprocessor advances ensure that these neo-companions will evolve at the same exponential speed as our computers. The processing power of vault-sized supercomputers costing millions of dollars today will sell for under $2000 and fit on a desktop in less than a decade Or in a small plush toy. The cartoon screen of Tamogochi will be replaced with vivid graphics in short order. Instead of raising a single creature, children will be evolving pocket-sized worlds. And the descendants of Barney will not just talk, they will also listen and understand simple speech. After that, who knows. Walking companions that toddle after their child pals, homework buddies that help with algebra, cyber-jocks that fill in when dad can’t play catch — all are possible within a reasonable time frame.
It will be decades, if ever, before these lifeforms actually are “intelligent,” but long before then they will take their place alongside earlier technologies like TV and the Internet to become waking nightmares for worried parents. Of course, once upon a time, parents were alarmed over their kids reading trashy dimestore novels. And unlike novels, these electronic lifeforms are easy to stop dead in their tracks — just sneak up behind them and yank out the batteries.