Teddy Ruxpin, an animatronic cassette tape playing toy of the mid-1980s, is a hybrid remediation of the teddy bear and the phonograph. Like earlier attempts by Edison and other inventors such as Francis and James Criswell (phonographic raven) and George Willbur Spencer and Alvah Lynde (“Speaking Figure”), Teddy Ruxpin is an attempt at reconciling the estrangement between the sound and body of sonic recording (Gitelman, 173).
* It should be noted that Teddy Ruxpin, though the most iconic, is only one example of a series of animatronic cassette tape playing toys released in 1980s America. All such devices performed essentially the same functions, but took different forms, including Mother Goose and “Grubby,” a mythical caterpillar from the Ruxpin stories.
Form and Aura
Though the teddy bear form may seem arbitrary, it is significant--a clear example of functional non-sense. The familiar form of the bear made a new and potentially frightening technology appealing to young children; the cartoonish, mammalian body was humanoid enough to be anthropomorphized and accepted as a companion but novel enough to maintain an aura of play and fantasy; the size and shape was ideal for concealing a tape-player; and the stuffed animal format provided a cushion and softness to the hard metal and plastic ‘guts’ of the apparatus. Similarly, Teddy Ruxpin is a relatively black-boxed device. Other than the ability to change the batteries and cassette tape, the inner workings of the toy are entirely inaccessible to the user. Even the battery pack and tape deck are hidden from sight, secured beneath a patch of Teddy’s Velcro fur and vest. The purpose of the black boxing is to maintain the aura of the device, to preserve the illusion of the magical talking toy. However, this aura is often betrayed by the ‘pops and hisses’ of the machine. For example, the jerky movements of the device or the accidental de-synchronization of movement and recording are a reminder that the voice reading the story is not that of the Teddy Ruxpin.
Diversion or Science?
Teddy Ruxpin also grapples with the same diversion/science dialectic with which Edison struggled in his early phonographic inventions. As Gitelman points out, "Realism had the several affects of play, prurience and ribaldry. Not surprisingly, phonographs…possess early histories that figure them doubly as toys and as scientific instruments" (171). Is Teddy Ruxpin a toy, scientific progress or is it both? The fact that Teddy Ruxpin is a device in the form of an affable cartoon character constructed to ‘read’ fairy tales to pre-school aged children suggests that it is a toy, intended for diversion only. But the fact that is was meant to be used as a learning device with books and marketed as a scientific advancement in toys, suggests that Teddy Ruxpin was also conceived of as a tool of mechanized education. The physicality of Teddy Ruxpin also alludes to this apparent paradox; it is made to look like a stuffed animal, ready for snuggling and companionship, but its heft and hardness reveal a device unsuitable for intimacy.
Labor and the New Factory
When considering the 'cake mix effect' of Teddy Ruxpin, one notices the extent to which labor plays a role its use. At first glance, one may observe that all you have to do is insert batteries and a tape, press play, and Teddy Ruxpin does the rest for you. But what is “the rest” in this scenario? For the parent, "the rest" might mean child care; occupying the child's attention with a story for an hour or so while the adult is free to take care of other things. For a teacher, this may mean taking over the task of teaching a child to read; the child just follows along in the companion book and learns to read as Teddy 'tells' the story. As Benjamin points out in A Cultural History of Toys, "…it is a great mistake to believe that it is simply children’s need that determine what is to be a toy" (118).
For a child, 'the rest' might mean relief from the mental and physical work of reading and using their imagination to give the story life. It is not even necessary for the child to follow along in the book, he may be a completely passive receptor of the automated reading. In this sense, there is an example of the social construction of, as Gitelmen phrases is, "the next experience of listening to recorded sounds" (150). In many ways, Teddy Ruxpin standardized the way reading 'sounded' to an entire generation of children. "Like language itself, there is some level at which media help 'wire' people for the thinking they do" (Gitelman, 150).
In the 1980s, rather than a need for skilled physical laborers, the emerging information marketplace was increasing the demand for skilled mental laborers. In this way, Teddy Ruxpin can be seen as a mode of production, training a future generation of workers, transforming the play room into a factory floor. “Factories are places in which new kinds of human beings are always being produced: first the hand-man, then the tool-man, then the machine-man, and finally the robot-man” (Flusser, 44-5). Teddy Ruxpin is an answer to Flusser's question of what the factories of the future will look like.
…robots are neuro-physiological and biological. It is a question of turning’ more and more deceptively accurate simulations of genetic, inherited information into things…the factory of the future will be much more adaptable than those of today, and it will be sure to redefine the relationship between human being and tool in a totally new way. (Flusser, 46)
Teddy Ruxpin as a "Non-Thing"
Teddy Ruxpin can also be understood in terms of Flusser's concept of the 'non-thing.' The physical form of the toy is not the essence of Teddy Ruxpin. The essence of Teddy Ruxpin is in the digital information which it stores and plays back to the user, the encoded life force of the talking bear. "The new human being is not a man of action anymore but a player," a person who, instead of reading, is read to—on that is rather playing with an information toy. (Flusser, 89)
- Benjamin, Walter. “The Cultural History of Toys,” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 2, part 1, 1927-1930. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2005.
- Gitelman, Lisa. Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines: Representing Technolgy in the Edison Era. Stanford University Press, 1999.
- Flusser, Vilem. The Shape of Things: A Philosophy of Design. Reakton Books Ltd., 1999.