On 13 January 1999, the United States’ National Security Agency banned its employees from bringing Furbys to work. An internal memo was hastily circulated, reminding that recording devices of any kind are prohibited within the department’s high-tech halls; “This includes toys, such as ‘Furbys’, with built-in recorders that repeat the audio with synthesized sound to mimic the original signal.”
Men in black feared that the polyester chatterboxes were secretly recording government intel. What if they spilled it to their tween custodians, or more nefarious parties, back home? Furbys were soon barred from the Norfolk Naval Shipyard and the Pentagon, too. Consumers were shook that a household appliance could listen to their private conversations.
Learning of this some twenty years later, I’m intrigued by the implications. How many high-up government employees were so attached to their kid’s toys that they took them to work... on a naval base? Following the scandal, toy mogul Roger Shiffman—then CEO of Furby’s manufacturing company Tiger Electronics—told CBS News, “We know that Furby has artificial intelligence, we’re just not sure what kind of intelligence the NSA is working with. ”Furbys aren’t fitted with recording devices—never have been, as Shiffman could have told the NSA, if they’d only asked.
Salty jibes aside, what does Furby prohibition reveal about technophobia and surveillance? Two decades on, are we still so afraid of household double agents that run on AAs?
If you missed the first wave of Furby fandom, the original unit looked like the kawaii lovechild of Gremlins’ Gizmo and Sesame Street’s Hoots the Owl. Designed to capitalise on the Tamagotchi and Giga Pet trends of ’97, Furbys (as the plural is stylised in the instruction manual) were stout, shouty little robotic baby aliens who spoke their own language—Furbish™—and learned their human friend’s dialect over time.
Well, ‘learned’ is misleading. Furbys may be bilingual but they’re pre-programmed with only a finite vocabulary, which unlocks incrementally over time, irrespective of any phrases favoured by their companions. Otherwise every child on Earth would teach the toy to burp and swear, exclusively.
Actually, they can do the former. Along with their incessant giggling and squawking, it made them the bane of many a parent’s existence circa Christmas ’98. In Furby’s first six months on shelves, they moved twenty million units. That figure has since doubled, as they evolve in line with technological advances. New models come with expressive LED eyes and a variety of possible personalities. They can even interact with digital hatchlings through a smartphone app.
While their propensity to belch and fart is meant to appeal to boys, Furbys are primarily marketed towards pre-teen girls, as they encourage nurturing, empathetic relationships. Interested as I am in concepts like listening, learning, anthropomorphism, cute shit, nostalgia, girlhood, flatulence, and puppets, I’ve recently acquired six Furbys (and counting).
One such specimen is a 2013 Furby Boom! adopted from the family across the road. It has purple plastic ears and feet. The bright yellow rings around its eyes house an infrared sensor, always on the lookout for other Furbys to chat with—“E-day doo-ay wah!” means ‘Good fun!’ Despite the schoolyard rumour that Furby pelts are made from dog fur, this baby comes in 100% acrylic, adorned with purple, yellow, aqua and white zigzag stripes.
On our first night together, I light some incense, play him a song by Steely Dan, and he falls asleep. It takes me hours to wind down, having overdosed on blue light while posting Instagram stories of my new animatronic pal. I wake up at 3 am, take a peek at who’s seen him. Dammit! I should have played him Hall & Oates’ ‘Private Eyes’.
In 2019, most folks have an eavesdropping machine within arm’s reach at all times, be it a smartphone, Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod, pet or baby monitor, so on. We house all kinds of iSpies with increasing normalcy, thanks to a phenomenon called ‘surveillance capitalism’, as theorised by Shoshana Zuboff. A social scientist and scholar, Zuboff first outlined the concept in her 2014 essay ‘A Digital Declaration’. She explains how our personal data is mined by “sensors, sur-veillance [sic] cameras, phones, satellites, street view, corporate and government databases,” and more.
Companies like Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook have monetised this data, selling its results back to us via targeted advertising, tweaked by the unseen forces of digital profiling. Zuboff says that brands trawl through our “data exhaust”—the trail of virtual bread-crumbs we generate while web browsing—without our explicit consent:
Users were constituted as unpaid workforce... Our output was asserted as ‘exhaust’ - waste without value - that it might be expropriated without resistance. A wasteland is easily claimed and colonized. Who would protest the transformation of rubbish into value?
Since most users weren’t initially aware it was happening, there were ostensibly few objections. Now, our growing distrust of The Big Four is attenuated by our escalating reliance on functionality like virtual assistants and Google Street View. Look, I didn’t give Larry Page permission to photograph my house, but as long as he’s doing everyone’s, I guess I’ll go along with it.
One way Facebook follows its users’—and non-users’—movements across the web is with a tracking tool called ‘Facebook pixel’. Commercial websites use this sneaky piece of code to record your local browsing actions and relay them back to Facebook’s Ad Manager platform. The intel drives the ads you’re served for items you’ve abandoned in off-site shopping carts, as well as for things you’ve already purchased.
So Facebook is fairly transparent about the cause and effect of our online shopping habits and resultant ads. The company is not quite so keen to explain how and why it can omnisciently prod us about products we’ve only expressed interest in offline.
In June 2016, Facebook refuted rumours of tapping users’ microphones to finesse what appears in our news-feeds. “Some recent articles have suggested that we must be listening to people’s conversations in order to show them relevant ads,” read the official statement. “This is not true. We show ads based on people’s interests and other profile information—not what you’re talking out loud about.” Facebook said it only accesses your microphone when you’re actively using a feature that requires audio, such as recording a video or voice message, and only if you’ve given the app permission to do so.
This above is an excerpt from Issue #42 of The Lifted Brow. To read it in full alongside many other brillant works of writing and art get your copy here.
Aimee Knight is a writer and critic living on Kaurna yerta. She's the Small Screens editor at The Big Issue and pop culture columnist for The Lifted Brow. Her work appears in Little White Lies, Kill Your Darlings, Meanjin and more.
Ashley Ronning is a Melbourne-based illustrator and artist. When her pens are down she’s playing pinball, going to gigs or having a tinnie in the sunshine.