Essay by Warren Chalk. First published in Architectural Design, July 1969.

Long before that High Court writ, Eye magazine reported that John Lennon and Ringo Starr visit one another just to play with their toys. Wherever there are children there are always toys. Children today, however, are no longer content with static, inanimate playthings, or with using their own mental invention, however magical, to simulate illusion.

 

New toys have reflex mechanisms and are goal-directed, self-regulating or remote-controlled.

 

This control and communication by movement and audio-visual means stimulates interaction between child and toy and a new kind of response is set up.

 

Manipulating a toy, a child is caught up in that interaction we call play. It is a simplified abstraction of the real day world around us. Through play a child learns and forms concepts in his own private world that allow him to become familiar with and able to adjust to his environment – a kind of behavioural deduction.

 

Toys are an extension of the child; through which he plays out his own dreams through control choice and response. The remote-controlled walking talking doll offers an inclusive integral auditory pattern, giving an elementary understanding of what cybernetics imply.

 

Remote-controlled participation and the decentralisation of play give an increased sense of accomplishment and achievement, which dissipates feelings of frustration at not being able to manipulate the adult world.

 

Today the ordinary child grows up in an electronic environment, and the new toys are an extension of the integrating sense of active touch. The name of the game is fantasy, an enchanting mini-world of fun toys that really go.

 

For the boys the toys firm go wild.

 

A complete Kennedy Airport set, with taped weather reports, take-offs and landings, holding patterns and flight paths.

 

A ‘Lost in Space’ TV robot, ‘follow this 12-inch robot on adventures, see how he winks and blinks his way out of dangerous situations’. Or a TR3 solid state walkie-talkie, which gives kids their own private hotline inside and outdoors. For son and dad appeal there is the Tyco double dipsey-doodle HO table-top raceway. ‘Race the hottest cars from HO – a Cheetah coupe and Mako Shark fastback – over the most challenging racetrack. A 60-foot course takes cars up, down, through loops, across lightning fast straightways and through jumper and receiver track units, all complete with 1 amp electronic power pack and remote control.’

 

Or there is the ESR Digi-Comp, a real digital computer, both educational and entertaining – you programme t yourself.

 

Little girls so long deprived of stimulus and response can choose a new experience with mother. There is the Horsman Teensie baby doll, ready for adoption. A sleepy eyed 9 inch tall baby who coos, drinks and wets.

 

More cybernetic is the remote-controlled walking-talking-living-love-is-a-special-way-of-feeling Tonia doll, a 12inch soft-bodied vinyl, with emerald green eyes, lashes, and dark brown rooted hair that falls softly to the shoulders.

 

In a cybernetic system there is some method of monitoring the output of the system, comparing it with a desired result and then using the difference to actuate some control mechanism to adjust to the required norm.

 

These toys are things that do their own thing, the child acts as controller and supervisor, or as monitor to override the result. The new generation of children’s toys offer deeper involvement and also more likelihood of success or reward, which is important to the child’s development and ego.

 

Reflexive response mechanisms, homing or tracking devices, applied in the toy world, give children the freedom to make responsible decisions about their own progress and success; the need to be independent is important, basic, to a child’s fulfilment.

 

It arises in normal human development. Through the remote-controlled toy car, plane or walkie-talkie doll, the child experiences autonomy and uniqueness, and the exercise of this unique control results in a satisfaction attainable in no other way.

 

Gordon Pask has stated that even in the absence of a human being, entities on the environment communicate with and learn about one another.

 

In the toy world mini-cyborg families are already in existence. Although not fully automated, there is a complete ‘family’ of Barbie dolls, including kid sister, girl friends and a boy friend, al capable of some minimal verbal communication: I think mini-skirts are smashing, etc. The existence of such miniature androids leaves one to postulate that it will not be long before a further development will allow them to compete with one another and cooperate in acting out pre-programmed goals. They may operate either autonomously or by remote control, and possess a trivial but nevertheless meaningful artificial intelligence. That is to say they might possess a set of human abilities such as language, simple problem-solving and pattern recognition, as elements equivalent to a human intelligence system. In this way child and toy would interact in a special dreamland, allowing the child to really do the Alice-through-the-Looking-Glass bit. Any moral worry (remember those dolls in Barbarella) will not be dispelled by those dreadful wooden ‘educational’ toys; but there is reassurance, we can always throw the switch and turn off.

 

In case the obvious hasn’t struck yet, it looks as though an analogy can be drawn between toys and what is already happening in the environment.

 

Communities are not really organisms like the anthill or the beehive, but rather organisation or ad hoc mechanisms for collective living, made up from an infinite number of interacting artefacts. Urban artefacts are classifiable: television, microfilm, credit card, telephone, car-wash, drive-in movie, drive-in bank, car, aeroplane, neon sign, stop light, are but a few of the urban toys we can play with. Manzac and the Electric Tomato are toys we might have in the future.

 

This situation makes it imperative to understand new methods of control and the random un-regulated behaviour pattern and interaction of such artefacts. It also makes it necessary to change the rules of the game from systematic to spontaneous trial-and-error play.

 

Groucho Marx summed it all up to the blonde on his knee: Read any good books lately? But then the Marx brothers were masters at changing the rules of the game and doing their own thing, their childlike simplicity coupled with unsurpassed inventive genius.

 

It would be foolish to assume that the quest of man will always take the same route, or use the same vehicles. Anyone with a sense of awareness knows what the Marx brothers were saying. The option is always open to us to change the instructions on the label.

 

For some of us, of course, this has in part already happened; we are delighted to get our kicks and ideas from all kinds of material outside the normal range of architecture; from comic strips to fashion magazines, neon signs to movies, and collect them under one notional umbrella we call, for the sake of convenience, environment. It’s all one bag so let’s forget the ethics. Master planning is obsolete, a freeway network as limiting as a ghetto, and one bag so let’s forget the ethics. Master planning is obsolete, a freeway network as limiting as a ghetto, and more restrictive than an airline route. The old fixed and static elements that built our cities are becoming increasingly irrelevant. New thinking and a new understanding begin to emerge, short-changing the existing rules of the game. There is a place now for re-interpretations of what is important, what really matters in the environmental complexity that surrounds us. With man’s boundary conditions breaking down and new directions and disciplines providing increased stimulus of interest, the static conventional know-how we call urbanism is being edged out by the try-it-and-see rethink.

 

In a transient society, the mobile searchlight pinpointing an automobile sale or a movie premiere is more important than any building; a credit card system more meaningful than a high-rise bank.

 

Urbanism, if it is to mean anything at all, is a fluid matrix of things that do their own thing.

 

In William Burroughs’ words, we must keep our bags packed and ready to move all the time.