Philosophy of Technology

Class Blog

The Disenchantment and Enchantment in the History of Toys

A lot of childhood memory struck me when I read about the bankruptcy of Toys R Us and its complete withdrawal from the business that’s expected to happen next week. In the specific case of Toys R Us, its bankruptcy is a result of the retailer’s bad management strategy and the financial crisis coming after that (McArdle), but generally, it suggests the decline of the toy industry. In one of the reports I read, video games and various high-tech toys are becoming more popular while traditional toys such as dolls and board games are almost retiring (La Monica). I opened a site with the title “125 Hottest Toys For Kids (2018)” and found the top ones very different from the toys I played with back to my childhood – an interactive baby monkey that can react to motion and sound; a  LEGO DIY robot featuring Bluetooth, motion sensors and a distance gauge; an AI technology robot that can play puzzles with children… Compared to the building blocks and Barbies I once owned, these high-tech toys seem to be creating a completely magical world with toys that are “alive”. I wonder if that means a return of enchantment in the contemporary world.

There’s something fascinating about the history and significance of toys – besides providing fun to children, toys could help form the worldview of the future generations. I came across an article about French toys around the 1960s written by Roland Barthes. In it, Barthes regards toys as highly socialized objects that reflect the modern adult life (“Toys”). Miniature soldiers, pilots, nurses, and transportations are children’s preparation for their adulthood. These extremely realistic toys are, in my understanding, toys of modernity and disenchantment. Barthes also writes about the change in toys’ material from wood to plastic/metal and suggests that the chemical and artificial quality attached to the modern toys deprive toys of their pleasure, warmth, and humanity (“Toys”). It reminds me of Latour’s assumption of the false claim of modernity as a separation between nature and culture mentioned in The Myth of Modernity.

We’ve been exposed to the idea of modernity as an abandonment of enchantment, known as things that are magical, spiritual or religious. Modernity means a rupture from the past in terms of its unprecedented emphasis on objective, rational and scientific worldview. But the myth of disenchantment or modernity comes from the fact that study of magic, religion, and spirits is actually a big part of modern scholars, artists, and scientists’ endeavor. It’s interesting to think that while back in some time the enchanted and the magical belong to these mature adults, nowadays, they seem to be planted in the mind of those children who have access to high-tech toys because of the toys’ suggestion of infinite possibilities. Would it be possible that with the presence and constant influence of technology, the future generations would regain an enchanted worldview?

In class, we learned about New Materialism which means a reconciliation of idealism and materialism nowadays. While the world consists of physical substances, the presence of ideas, consciousness, and language is also acknowledged. I think the clock situated in Wolfgang Ernst’s explanation could be a physical representation of New Materialism since it suggests that although the clock is a machine, its rhythm and philosophy have a close connection to religious practice. Then what about those high-tech toys? Could they also be physical representatives of New Materialism for being consisted of both materials and ideas? We’re likely to find out that the distinction between enchantment and disenchantment no longer exists in an absolute way.

From toys of simple wooden structure to realistic toys preparing children for adult life and finally to the toys today which focus more on the interaction with technology, toys have always served a purpose in influencing or educating the young. And I think no matter the future is viewed as enchanted, disenchanted, or a little bit of both by its generation, technology definitely opens up new possibilities and provide more initiative in the act of creating.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. “Toys”. Mythologies. Vintage, 2009. Print.

La Monica, Paul R. “Toys ‘R’ Us could go out of business next week. That’s bad news for Lego and Barbie”. CNN Money. 9 March, 2018. Accessed 12 March, 2018.

McArdle, Megan. “Toys R Us still sells lots of toys. Here’s why it’s going under.” The Washington Post. 11 March, 2018. Accessed 12 March, 2018.

“125 Hottest Toys For Kids (2018) – Best Gifts for Boys & Girls”. reviews xp. Accessed 12 March, 2018. (an interesting video that shows 100 years of toys)

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Philosophy of Technology at NYU Shanghai, a course by Anna Greenspan and Brad Weslake.