As the father of a 2 year old, it’s interesting for me having my son approach the age where I started remembering stuff. I remember bits and pieces of the tail end of being 2. I remember wearing Ernie footie pajamas at the drive-in theatre in town, watching Star Wars for the first time. I also had my first stuffed animal friend, a bear named Fluffy. My son hasn’t latched on to any toy in particular as a buddy yet, nor really given any of his toys any anthropomorphic qualities. I’m curious to see when he starts, and what personalities he starts assigning. Part of the reason this intrigues me is because I’d like a little insight into my own childhood. I used to name almost every toy I owned, and I can remember sleeping with my bed filled to capacity with little plastic toys so that they didn’t feel left out. I can definitely appreciate caring for the feelings of others, but in retrospect I think perhaps feeling empathy toward a Grimace comb obtained from a Happy Meal might have been a bit much. Trying to break myself of this behavior wasn’t easy. Basically, it involved putting my best friend in a box and telling myself he wasn’t real. Though I was aware at the time it was the mature, healthy thing to do, it still felt completely wrong. To this day, it’s still a little hard to watch Toy Story.
Looking back on my childhood, I’m not particularly surprised at this. I got mercilessly bullied as a child all the way through high school. My imagination has always been my playground and my sanctuary. Inventing my own friends who wouldn’t hurt me seems pretty logical under the circumstances. Hopefully, my son won’t need to do this. I don’t know if growing up this way is a common thing, especially among geeks, but I do know it colors my perspective on parenting.
We watch a lot of PBS around my house these days, and two of my son’s favorite shows are Thomas the Tank Engine and Bob the Builder. Both of these shows feature anthropomorphized machines, and they all have faces of some sort and speak and have feelings. Matter of fact, in both shows the machines are happiest when they are useful, and sad when they’re not. It makes sense for this type of show, and it helps little kids understand that it feels good to help others. That’s great — until I think about it too hard and ruin everything.
It was an episode of Thomas that set the dread wheels in motion. Somebody found a spot on a map that nobody had been to for years, and they sent a team to check it out. It was all overgrown and when they cleared it out, they found this old steam engine. 50 years ago, he had finished a day’s work and parked in his shed, and then nobody came back for him. They show him sadly waiting through a couple seasons, and eventually falling asleep until he was found. In the story, he was all happy to be found and they refurbish him and everything is great. But I’m thinking this engine is sitting alone, in the dark, unable to move or talk to anyone for half a century. He’s going to be crazy, incredibly pissed off, or both. And even if he’s not, he’s going to be really depressed that he could be forgotten that easily.
That got me wondering how the trains get built in such a way that they have personalities, and why they are all subservient to Sir Topham Hatt. What creature is born with an instinctive love of tourism and industry? Not long after, I saw an episode of Bob the Builder where Scoop is complaining he’s the only digger around, and so Bob’s dad calls the machine rental store and brings in a happy new member for the crew. Isn’t that slavery? (Does it count if you’re just renting them? I’m imagining a chain of stores called “INDENT-U-RENT”.) This, of course, is not a new concept to anyone who’s seen Star Wars. C3P0 has lots of stories to tell about all his former masters. They even made a cartoon series about it! But the droids are pretty nonchalant about all this, even quietly accepting their fate when Luke buys only Threepio and it seems they’re going to be separated.
It’s not always like that, of course. The Matrix is a great example of what happens when the machines are aware of their fate, have the physical capability to do something about it, and have no programming in place to dictate a course of action other than murdering us and turning us into Duracell batteries. This makes me worry about the eventual fate of Sir Topham Hatt and Bob The Builder and everyone in their worlds. What if the economy takes a dive and the work dries up? You’ll have all these frustrated, depressed machines with nothing better to do than destroy. What if they become aware of their plight and rebel? And what are you going to stop them with? All the tanks and planes probably have faces, too. You’ll be relying on Robert the Rocket Propelled Grenade and Friends.
It’s times like these when I consider giving in and turning on Dora the Explorer. Yes, she makes me want to saw off the top of my skull and scoop my own brains out to end my suffering, but at least I don’t generate apocalypse scenarios for Sunflower Valley. Sometimes I soothe myself by thinking this will help prepare mankind for the Singularity. I will hide in a bunker with people who are prepared for the Zombie Apocalypse, Alien invasions, and the Grey Goo scenario. We will form the League of Improbable Doom, and whip each other’s irrational fears into an unstoppable frenzy.
This is really making me want to play a golem-specialist wizard. Or just a golem. Or to invent an anthropomorphic steam-engine class for 4E. Warforged are for amateurs.