Objects and Organisms

Objects & Organisms. Vivification, Reification, Transformation
Interdisciplinary conference
Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich / Museum Mensch und Natur
Munich, 12 – 13 July 2019

I presented the paper:

Playful Control: The Example of Anthropomorphic Toy Robots


Since its introduction by Karel Čapek in 1920, the word robot has come to express a technology that is fascinating but also terrifying. Challenging the power of humans, the robot has been viewed as a symbol of uncontrollable mechanisation and as a threat to our inner humanity. I examine robots as toys, in the context of my research on technology-related play. The first toy robot, Lilliput, was a tinplate humanoid made in Japan in 1938. This may be viewed as a descendant or relative of robot-like creatures which had already appeared in design, art, and popular culture as expressions of menacing aspects of modern technology. Bauhaus artists experimented with puppets for children and with robotic choreographies, pushing the limits of what it means to be human. In Fritz Lang’s filmMetropolisof 1927, the humanoid Maria exemplified a futuristic dystopia of technology out of control. The theme of human creation that becomes unmanageable resurfaced in the film Frankensteinof 1931, based on the 1818 novel by Mary Shelley Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus. The 1939 production of the film Wizard of Ozfeatured the character Tin Woodman, a worker who had turned from a man to a heartless machine; this figure has been interpreted as an example of industrialisation’s dehumanising impact.

Following the first toy robot, an immense variety of anthropomorphic toy robots appeared during the 1950s and 1960s, bearing imaginative names like Robert the Robot, Star Strider and Television Spaceman. Manufacturers competed by introducing different designs, more movement, light, sound, bright colours and stunning packaging. This was a time when advanced industrialised societies were preoccupied with a second industrial revolution, based on atomic power and automation, which would presumably generate mass unemployment. In public discourse, robots appeared to be both exciting and daunting. In this context, toy robots became part of the everyday, helped mould expectations of technology and enabled children and adults to negotiate both their fantasies and fears. The designs of toy robots, mostly anthropomorphic in miniature and quite different from the actual shapes of factory robots, represented attempts to pacify the fear of dehumanisation by technology and of losing control of one’s own body. Philosopher Gaston Bachelard argued that miniaturisation enables values to become condensed and enriched, and in a sense empowers humans to possess the world. Producing and marketing toy robots successfully exploited the ambivalent feelings of the public, by offering an accessible and creative way of coping with one’s fears and of getting accustomed to the shape of things to come. Through the playful, low-risk activity of handling toy robots, people explored a threatening technology at a Lilliputian level and appropriated it on their own terms.