Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Toys, Disruption, Arrogance and Finding the Middle Ground

A couple of weeks ago, the start up toy company GoldieBlox put out a YouTube ad. I, like many others, liked it and shared it, even though the ad barely shows the toy it is meant to be promoting, and when it does show it, it is used in a manner completely unlike what is suggested by the materials that come with the toy. Still, the ad's message and execution were good.

Then we heard that the Beastie Boys were suing over the use of the song "Girls." Or were they? It turned out that Goldieblox sued first. (The ad has now been removed, so if you didn't get a chance to see it, you're out of luck now.)

There was a lot of discussion about whether or not the actual toy is any good. Some people said yes, others said no. A negative review from a 10 year old popped up a few times in my feed. We do not own one of the GoldieBlox kits, so I cannot give you a review from my kids. From what I know, the 10 year old makes some good points. However, I think the kits are aimed at kids much younger than 10, and perhaps they are more interested in what it offers. More broadly, I suspect that like most toys, some kids will like GoldieBlox and some won't. Is that distribution weighted more one way or the other for GoldieBlox? I don't know. It looks like a fairly standard building toy to me, with a slant to include a simple machine (which is good) and some link to story-telling, which is supposed to make toys more appealing to girls. (GoldieBlox is not alone in doing this- LEGO cited girls' supposed tendency to want to tell stories with their toys as part of the research that went into the design of the Friends' sets that had so many people up in arms a couple of years ago.)

Do girls really like to tell stories with their toys more than boys? I don't know. My girls both construct elaborate fictional worlds. Pumpkin prefers to be part of the world she builds, and tends towards role-playing games (she loves playing school, for instance). Petunia seems to like to control the entire world, and gravitates toward setting up vignettes with various dolls and figurines. I've always assumed boys do this, too, just using the toys that the world deems are OK for them, i.e., cars and action figures.

The thing is, a toy doesn't have to be the be all, end all building toy for girls to be a good toy. It can bore some kids and thrill others. Kids are not all the same, not even within the narrow gender-based confines society has built for them. Pumpkin loved puzzles. Petunia was so-so on them, but adores trains. Even in a perfect world free of all gender bias, some girls won't want to be engineers. Some boys don't want to be engineers. That's OK. 

Maybe we should worry less about trying to lure little girls into an engineering interest and focus a little more on trying not to repel the ones who have that interest. 

We also don't have to look for one toy to be the savior of little girls. There are a lot of toys out there that can help build the skills kids need to do well in math and science later. You can find more by going to the toy store, thinking about your kids' interests, and finding toys that appeal to those interests but also provide opportunities to develop spatial reasoning, pattern recognition, and other math-like skills.

I also started seeing tweets linking the company to "typical arrogant Silicon Valley start up behavior" or something like that. That may be a fair criticism. The world of tech start ups does have a fair amount of hubris. I have read many things written over the years by techies who think that they know how to "fix" some other industry, even though it is pretty clear that they don't actually understand the years and years of accumulated knowledge about what works and what doesn't in that industry. Andy Grove was sure he had the breakthrough ideas to "fix" drug discovery, but a lot of his ideas were just laughable to anyone who knows anything about trying to develop a chemical that will have a desired effect on the human body without also having a slew of other, far less desirable effects. More recently, the founding father of MOOCs has admitted that his ideas did not work in the actual real world educational environment.

Then there is the case of 23andMe, who recently received a ruling from the FDA telling them that they must stop selling their testing kits. It is not 100% clear to me what happened, but from what I have read it seems like they thought the FDA regulations were just another thing in need of disrupting. Maybe they are, but they carry the force of law and to willfully flout them was crazy if it wasn't arrogant. This is particularly puzzling to me since the biotech downturn has no doubt freed up many talented people in the San Francisco area with expertise in regulatory affairs, who would have been able to help 23andMe develop a more realistic regulatory strategy. (If you need a reminder of why the FDA might need to regulate the personal genomics industry, consider what might have happened if a less tech-savvy person had found the bug Lukas Hartmann describes finding in his results.)

On the other hand, though, the tech world does produce a lot of good ideas, and has developed real expertise in many areas that would be beneficial to other industries. But no one will listen to the arrogant asshole who stands outside the room and loudly tells the people inside that they are a bunch of idiots in need of disruptive technology. Instead, the people on the inside will muster their arguments against the new ideas, and fight to reject them wholesale. If that is what happens, then I think we all lose out.

Every human endeavor has unique characteristics. They don't all behave like a tech start up and they certainly don't all operate under the same rules and regulations as a tech start up. In many cases, directly applying tech start up ideas in other fields is likely to cause a lot of pain, and then fail. But completely ignoring the ideas that come out of the tech world risks missing an idea that truly can change how your industry functions, and make it better. 

Surely there is a middle ground, where we can recognize the complexity that makes life so interesting, and be open to new ideas but not dismissive of the accumulated knowledge in established industries. I want to find and inhabit that middle ground.

And GoldieBlox? We've decided to give it a pass. My kids already have a lot of building toys, which they love. I am, however, considering a buildable Barbie house
for Christmas. That doesn't mean GoldieBlox is a terrible toy. It just means that it isn't the right toy for us.


  1. Anonymous2:33 PM

    No comment on the rest of the stuff, but, with my N=1, boys very much like story-telling with games. I don't see how anybody could think otherwise... one word: Pokemon. I imagine this is one of those things that they call something else when girls do it compared to boys. Or maybe they've noticed that girls have more real-life stories and boys have more fantastic stories... which shouldn't be a surprise if girls are 50% of the population but less than 15% of characters in the fantastic stories out there (from Lord of the Rings to Lego Star Wars and everything in between).

    1. Anonymous3:29 PM

      Also, who knew DnD was female-dominated? Not to say it couldn't be if the patriarchy didn't suck so much.

  2. Anonymous3:27 PM

    Ditto on the boys and storytelling. My 3 year old has always been attracted to things with engines despite equal quantities of dolls, play food and kitchen, stuffed animals, etc. He LOVES to act out stories with his vehicles and if they have a face on them, it really amps up the story telling. I'm guessing that's why Thomas (the train) and Chuck (the dump truck) and Mater (the tow truck) are such popular toys for young boys - they play into their fascination with big vehicles while playing into the universal human attraction to stories.

  3. I have two boys. My oldest never did pretend play or told stories until my younger boy came along. He's a little bundle of imagination and frequently inhabits his pretend world. "No, Mom, I'm Smokescreen today. I'd like Energon Cubes for lunch, please." Kids are different. Boys seem slightly more active as toddlers, girls seem slightly more precocious with language, but it all seems to even out in the end.

    1. Anonymous7:10 PM

      I thought the science was that girls crawled/walked earlier than boys. Is that wrong?

      In my (extended N = lots) family, girls are by FAR more active as toddlers (not to mention as adults). Must be some sort of messed up genetic thing. Or, you know, weird family culture. I'm guessing nurture over nature. I notice myself allowing my daughter to do things we shut down in our son. (Of course, he's also a lot easier to shut down. He has generally only had to be told no once, even as a toddler, whereas she'll fight it and she realizes we give in the third time unless it's something important, so she keeps getting rewarded for pushing boundaries as we are trained to try to avoid fights.)

  4. I love the concept of GoldieBlox -- and I interviewed their founder a few weeks ago. I haven't gotten them for my kids, but when my little girl is a little older I'd consider it. But I'm always surprised by what kids like. My 2-year-old is absolutely obsessed with this story called I Want My Hat Back. I didn't think it was a particularly memorable book but she wants to read it again and again. Go figure.

    1. Anonymous9:05 AM

      I'm always a little disappointed with how uninterested they are in the hilarious Sandra Boynton but how much they love the most boring books. (Turns out it was the cow who said moo, whew!) Our 6 year old appreciates Moo Baa Tralalala, but our 16 month old, not so much.

    2. Anonymous9:12 AM

      Oh oh, just looked at I want my hat back... probably not a book I should be getting a little girl who already thinks it's ok to bite someone who takes her stuff!

    3. Probably why mine likes it!

  5. Anonymous6:26 PM

    Mine probably would too. But you can't go around eating people who take your stuff!

    1. Anonymous6:23 PM

      Turns out my moo baa tralala example was bad...she now has it memorized, or at least the animal sound parts.

    2. Petunia still loves Red Hat, Green Hat. Even though I'm a little sad that she actually says "Oops!" now instead of "Poots!"

    3. Anonymous6:37 AM

      DC1 loves Red Hat Green Hat (as do we adults), but DC2 isn't old enough to love it yet.


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