In “Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century,” the late Neil Postman, an NYU professor who founded the Media Ecology program (essentially the sociology, anthropology, and psychology of media as it applies to education) drew on the philosophers of the Enlightenment to map an approach to technology in the 21st century.
“If we’re going to make technology education part of the curriculum,” he wrote, “its goal must be to teach students to use technology rather than to be used by it. . . .They must know how a technology’s use affects the society in which they live, as well as their own personal lives. This is something we did not do with television, and, I fear, we are not now doing with computer technology.”
I thought of Neil’s work when I came across toy business consultant/blogger Richard Gottlieb’s recent quote in The New York Times — “The toy industry is essentially a 19th-century industry desperately trying to break into the 21st.” Richard was commenting on the ouster of Mattel CEO Bryan Stockton; in his blog, Richard expands on that in reasoned and sane manner – just the sort of thing lacking in most analyses of public beheadings.
There’s a second level at which Neil’s insistence on looking at history in order to map the future is relevant: Part of Mattel and arch-rival Hasbro’s problems in recent years has been their inability to find a balance between traditional toys/games and technology.
JAKKS Pacific has struggled in recent years, but its Elsa and other Disney lines (including the aged-down Princess for toddlers), and the acquisition of Halloween costume company Disguise, have helped the company turn around. Today it is credited as one of the smaller, nimbler toy companies that get on-trend and into the stores faster than the majors. (Of course, one bad season can end that reputation all too quickly.) Count Bridge Direct and Spin Master among that group of smaller/nimbler toy companies, as well. Interestingly, none of these companies is heavily leveraged in technology-based toys. But all are facing off with Activision, LeapFrog, Apple, and other digital/online entertainment providers, as much as with each other.
With DreamWorks having looked at acquiring Hasbro late last year, followed by rumors that Disney would do so, a change of CEOs and restructuring at Mattel are hardly the last word on changes afoot in the toy business.
What does history instruct? Whether it’s traditional toys/games, or tech-based, the constants are play patterns and stories. The delivery mechanism may change, but those core characteristics don’t.
© 2015 Ira Mayer.