Toys as cultural markers?

by Ben N on June 28, 2011

I’ve often said that that we don’t have a technological problem when it comes to clean transportation, we have a cultural problem.

A typical home-built electric car, running on lead-acid batteries (100-year old technology) will go 40 miles on a charge. That’s enough to meet the needs of the average American daily commute. The trouble is our CULTURE – our thinking, and our expectations of what a car should be.

Usually, our culture changes fairly slowly – norms on marriage for example – but there are time that it IS possible for it to change very quickly. Take cell phones for example. How many years did it take for cell phones to go from being a status symbol to just being another piece of technology everyone used? Not very long at all in the grand scale of things. Of course there were some bumps along the way – people’s personal, yet loud, conversations in elevators, phone use in restaurants, personal vs business use, etc. Most of those are ironed out, and now we are trying to figure out how to text without crashing our cars…..

But those are all cultural issues. We create the technology, and then the technology changes us – how we use it, and how we interact with each other.

I also truly believe in a concept that I call “Cultural Inertia”. In a nut-shell, we will keep doing what we have always done, unless we have some really good reason to do it differently. And we do this as a group. A great big group. Either as a country, a state, or speakers of the same language, we all hold certain values in commmon – what we believe is the “right” way to do something.

So, as culture slowly changes, is there some way we can peek into the future? Are there early signs that change is coming?

I believe there is – TOYS.

You heard me right, toys. Childrens toys are a HUGE part of our culture. What would America be without the Barbie Doll and the GI Joe? Do they reflect greater elements of adult life? I think they do. Look at any tabloid magazine at a grocery check-out. Is our obsession with celebrities in swimsuits on the cover of magazines any different that playing with a Barbie doll? How about our military? The US Army is in bases and foreign countries around the world. Does little Billy play with GI Joe because he wants to be just like Daddy, who is in Iraq?

But toys don’t have to be the worst of our culture, they can also be of the best.

This past Friday night, I came home late. I knew my brother was in town visiting, and saw a new baby toy on our living room table – obviously a gift for our 8-month-old daughter. It was a toy car. But here’s the weird part, it was a toy ELECTRIC CAR! No where on the toy or the box, did it specifically SAY it was an electric car, but that’s how EVERYONE seems to recognize it.

*Batteries Not Included

A few months back, some friends came over to visit, and they brought their kids with. The two boys had a tub of Matchbox Cars with them. They were playing with a couple of silver cars on the floor, when I realized that their favorite one was a Tesla Roadster! When you flip a Matchbox Car over, you typically see an embossed exhaust system, driveshaft, and differential stamped on the bottom. No so with the Tesla. The real-life one has a belly pan, and the underside of the Matchbox car is smooth.

Saturday morning, I went out to the Milwaukee Hybrid Group meeting. That’s a great local organization for the promotion of clean transportation, whether it’s driving a Prius, carpooling, or just slowing down when you drive. One of the regulars there pulled a box out of the back of his car. A Toy box. It was a Transformer – a toy that changes from a car into a robot. You might recognize these from the recent movies, but I’ll always remember them as cartoon characters from my youth. (I’m not even sure if it was an “official” Transformer, it may have been a Power Rangers changing toy. I still even think of Go-Bots as Transformers though…)
Now here’s the thing, instead of being a tractor-trailer or a sports car, the toy was a hybrid – the Prius. Not the big, loud truck (sorry Optimus…) or a fancy sports car – a gas sippin’, tree-huggin’ Prius.

Of course the car still transforms. In this case, into a big cat. I think it’s supposed to be a tiger, but it looks like a jaguar. Sort of reminds me of the original Decepticon Ravage. We were all joking how the Prius must be the most efficient killing machine robot…

Prius in car mode Prius-saurus-Rex

Do toys really point the way to the future? Who knows….. I’m sure there are plenty of social psychologists out there doing studies. But I DO think that toys ARE a reflection of our culture. And it that’s true, it means we are finally starting to re-think what a car is.

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June 28, 2011 at 9:21 am

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1 Pete Prodoehl June 28, 2011 at 12:04 pm

I hope you’re right on this… If anything, perhaps it will serve to introduce kids to the idea of electric vehicles at a young age so that the idea is familiar and by the time they buy a car, it won’t seem at all odd compared to the “old” way of doing it.

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