A Few Calming Words in Defense of Hello Barbie

Ever since Mattel and partner ToyTalk announced Hello Barbie, privacy advocates, parental groups, technology pundits, security gurus, and the media have been heaping vitriol upon the little doll with the push-to-talk button on her belt buckle. Now they’ve even mustered up a class action lawsuit. Based on the ferocity of the attacks, one would almost think Mattel was trying to sell toddlers a working replica of Jack the Ripper.

Hello BarbieHello BarbieI’m still trying to understand what it is about Hello Barbie that elicits such a gut-level aversion in people, because it’s clear the reaction is primarily emotional. The main complaints levied against the doll are that it violates a child’s privacy, is riddled with security holes, and is likely to crush a child’s innate creativity.

Oddly, I rarely if ever read complaints about children wearing Disney magic band tracking devices, spending hours immersed in iPad videos and apps, or having their essays scored by robo-graders.

Not that there’s anything innately bad about any of the above. We’re just living in a new world and it takes some getting used to.

Hello Barbie isn’t perfect, but it isn’t evil. Like her early precursor Chatty Cathy, Hello Barbie is Mattel’s attempt to push available technology as far as possible in the direction of giving children what they’ve always wanted: a doll that actually talks to them. It seems everyone is upset with the toymaker because this time they’ve come darn close to delivering on the promise.

Is that really such a bad thing? Youngsters lucky enough to be playing with Hello Barbie this Christmas will be of age to enter the workforce in 2027. Since there’s a high probability (99.999%?) that in 2027 employees in all sectors will need to understand how to interact seamlessly with language-capable intelligent devices, why not get an early start?

Children can learn from disappointments with Hello Barbie’s current conversational limitations and watch as future iterations of the doll mature in capability. As far as privacy concerns go, digital natives probably reveal more personal info about themselves in 20-second social media interactions than they will in hours of scripted play with a talking doll. These children will be adults in a world where they’re surrounded by recording devices and where everything they say may be searchable. As much as we may want to, we can’t stop this from happening. The best we can do is prepare our children to navigate successfully through this new digital landscape.

Are there real risks and concerns with talking toys? Absolutely. I’m more concerned about what the doll is scripted to say than I am about who’s listening to the conversation. But there’s a difference in discussing risks and blindly jumping on a bash Barbie bandwagon.

Take a deep breath and think before succumbing to the knee jerk reaction to retweet the latest alleged Hello Barbie mishap. Or put down Siri for a minute and ask Alexa to play you some relaxation music. There now. Feel better?

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