The Stasi and the Elf on the Shelf

Why “surveillance play” may be more important than we think

When I first heard about the “Elf on the Shelf,” my first reaction was pure horror. For those who have never seen it, this toy takes the form of a little elf doll, which comes with books and videos that explain how the game is played.

The Elf is an agent of The Boss, and during the month leading up to Christmas, it watches the child, reporting every day to the main office about its behavior. Every day, the parents hide the Elf in a different place; the child’s role in the game is to find where the elf is hidden. For a child to touch the elf or play with it is forbidden: the most they can do is talk to it, knowing that whatever they say will be duly reported back to Headquarters that night.

I first heard about this toy through an article which also interviewed Laura Pinto, a professor at the University of Ontario who has written about it. Pinto argues that this toy normalizes living under surveillance for children, and encourages them to grow up thinking that this is normal. And (especially on the heels of a few years in which every week seemed to bring new stories of government surveillance), it was hard not to agree with this, and feel horrified.

But then I thought about it, and realized that there is more to this story.

What is the purpose of play? Specifically, what is the purpose of “pretend play,” in which personalities are given to items, identities are adopted, stories are told? It’s very similar to the purpose of fiction: it’s how we learn to interact with the world, by imagining scenarios and thinking about all of the different ways that we could respond to them. (Fiction both does this, and gives us exposure to how other people might think about them: it’s thus a combination of play — imagining ourselves in the protagonist’s shoes — and a window into other people’s worlds)

A game like “Elf on the Shelf” is a chance to place oneself in the situation of knowing that one is being watched, monitored, reported on, and analyzed by remote and powerful forces, and think about how to structure one’s life in such a circumstance.

So in an uncomfortably honest way, it’s a perfect game for today’s children, in that it asks them, when still small, to role-play through real challenges which they’ll face as adults: how to survive in a panopticon. Being aimed at children, it takes the form of a happy, pleasing elf, as opposed to — say — a Stasi agent wearing headphones and listening to a bugging device. (Although I don’t think I can really look at this toy without remembering Ulrich Mühe’s brilliant performance in The Lives of Others)

The meaning of this role-playing for children’s future depends a lot on the world they will live in. And there are three interesting possibilities.

One is to imagine a world in which these children will grow up to have agency over the state in which they live. In such a case, for them to grow up seeing surveillance as the most ordinary of things would be terrifying — at least from our perspective as people who have grown up in a world which was not quite so monitored. (Which is to say, those who grew up in the Western world prior to the mid-90’s or so)

A second is to imagine a world in which our children have no meaningful agency over these matters, in which various organizations with ambiguously alarming names like “the committee for state security” (among others) are monitoring one continuously, and their operators therefore have infinite powers of blackmail or imprisonment over everyone. (“Show me six lines written by the most honest man in the world,” Cardinal Richelieu famously said, “and I will find enough therein to hang him.” He meant it, too.) In a world like this, children need to learn how to survive from an early age: dealing with a panopticon becomes as important a thing to learn as dealing with wolves or Klansmen was for other generations.

But there is a third possibility, one which I think is both the most likely and the hardest to think through: that, by the time our children grow up, the ways in which they think about surveillance will be as foreign to us as the ways we think about computers are foreign to our own parents. The rise of surveillance has not been a simple ascent of the Stasi: it’s been a “democratized panopticon,” in which many people have access to one another’s information: people as unknown to one another as strangers in a city knowing as much about one another as fellow residents of a small village. We have already seen many profound shifts in our notions of privacy, and we are still quite far from reaching an equilibrium with which we are, as a society, happy. Consider, for example, the question: is it appropriate for a prospective employer to look at one’s social media posts, and deny employment to someone based on — say — pictures of them at a party? Most people instinctively feel that there is something profoundly wrong here, but within the rather rough bounds of our established norms, it’s hard to say what: these pictures are publicly visible, after all.

What’s happening here, and in hundreds of other similarly complex cases, is that as information has become tremendously more available, our social norms around the acceptable use of such information, and the acceptable means by which such information can be gathered, are still evolving. This is something I deal with every day, trying to balance people’s wish to disseminate information with people’s wish to control it — and often, with the same people having profoundly contradictory desires for themselves and for others. We don’t have solid answers yet: what we have are evolving norms, as we (as a society) feel out the boundaries of the acceptable, and try to construct a working system in a technologically different world.

In a context like this, the Elf on the Shelf suddenly has a very important meaning: it’s a way for children to start to grasp and grapple with these issues from childhood. We’ve created toys like this for our children because, consciously or not, we are aware that the problems which face our world are profound, and we’ve come to see them as so natural that of course they would manifest in the toys we make. This is beyond natural: it is important, because it creates a channel for children to start to explore these questions from an early age.

I don’t know what kinds of games and behaviors children will develop around these toys. I suspect that there will be a wide range, and that as these children grow up, the experience of surveillance-play will shape their attitudes and feelings around the technical panopticon which we have accidentally created. And I suspect that it is these children — the still-unnamed, post-Millennial generation — who will ultimately come up with a working social order that defines much of our future.

So given that, I understand the existence and the popularity of the Elf on a Shelf.

But I still think the damned thing is creepy.

A version of this article originally appeared on Google+ in 2014.

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