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Grayson Perry: The rise and fall of Default Man

How did the straight, white, middle-class Default Man take control of our society – and how can he be dethroned?

Attack of the clones: Default Man is so entrenched in society that he is “like a Death Star hiding behind the moon”. Artwork by Grayson Perry

Grayson Perry's guest-edited issue of the New Statesman is on sale on Thursday 9 October. Visit newstatesman.com/subscribe to get a copy

Paddle your canoe up the River Thames and you will come round the bend and see a forest of huge totems jutting into the sky. Great shiny monoliths in various phallic shapes, they are the wondrous cultural artefacts of a remarkable tribe. We all know someone from this powerful tribe but we very rarely, if ever, ascribe their power to the fact that they have a particular tribal identity.

I think this tribe, a small minority of our native population, needs closer examination. In the UK, its members probably make up about 10 per cent of the population (see infographic below); globally, probably less than 1 per cent. In a phrase used more often in association with Operation Yewtree, they are among us and hide in plain sight.

They dominate the upper echelons of our society, imposing, unconsciously or otherwise, their values and preferences on the rest of the population. With their colourful textile phalluses hanging round their necks, they make up an overwhelming majority in government, in boardrooms and also in the media.

They are, of course, white, middle-class, heterosexual men, usually middle-aged. And every component of that description has historically played a part in making this tribe a group that punches far, far above its weight. I have struggled to find a name for this identity that will trip off the tongue, or that doesn’t clutter the page with unpronounceable acronyms such as WMCMAHM. “The White Blob” was a strong contender but in the end I opted to call him Default Man. I like the word “default”, for not only does it mean “the result of not making an active choice”, but two of its synonyms are “failure to pay” and “evasion”, which seems incredibly appropriate, considering the group I wish to talk about.

Today, in politically correct 21st-century Britain, you might think things would have changed but somehow the Great White Male has thrived and continues to colonise the high-status, high-earning, high-power roles (93 per cent of executive directors in the UK are white men; 77 per cent of parliament is male). The Great White Male’s combination of good education, manners, charm, confidence and sexual attractiveness (or “money”, as I like to call it) means he has a strong grip on the keys to power. Of course, the main reason he has those qualities in the first place is what he is, not what he has achieved. John Scalzi, in his blog Whatever, thought that being a straight white male was like playing the computer game called Life with the difficulty setting on “Easy”. If you are a Default Man you look like power.

I must confess that I qualify in many ways to be a Default Man myself but I feel that by coming from a working-class background and being an artist and a transvestite, I have enough cultural distance from the towers of power. I have space to turn round and get a fairly good look at the edifice.

In the course of making my documentary series about identity, Who Are You?, for Channel 4, the identity I found hardest to talk about, the most elusive, was Default Man’s. Somehow, his world-view, his take on society, now so overlaps with the dominant narrative that it is like a Death Star hiding behind the moon. We cannot unpick his thoughts and feelings from the “proper, right-thinking” attitudes of our society. It is like in the past, when people who spoke in cut-glass, RP, BBC tones would insist they did not have an accent, only northerners and poor people had one of those. We live and breathe in a Default Male world: no wonder he succeeds, for much of our society operates on his terms.

Chris Huhne (60, Westminster, PPE Mag­dalen, self-destructively heterosexual), the Default Man we chose to interview for our series, pooh-poohed any suggestion when asked if he benefited from membership or if he represented this group. Lone Default Man will never admit to, or be fully aware of, the tribal advantages of his identity. They are, naturally, full subscribers to that glorious capitalist project, they are individuals!

This adherence to being individuals is the nub of the matter. Being “individual” means that if they achieve something good, it is down to their own efforts. They got the job because they are brilliant, not because they are a Default Man, and they are also presumed more competent by other Default Men. If they do something bad it is also down to the individual and not to do with their gender, race or class. If a Default Man commits a crime it is not because fraud or sexual harassment, say, are endemic in his tribe (coughs), it is because he is a wrong ’un. If a Default Man gets emotional it is because he is a “passionate” individual, whereas if he were a woman it would often be blamed on her sex.

When we talk of identity, we often think of groups such as black Muslim lesbians in wheelchairs. This is because identity only seems to become an issue when it is challenged or under threat. Our classic Default Man is rarely under existential threat; consequently, his identity remains unexamined. It ambles along blithely, never having to stand up for its rights or to defend its homeland.

When talking about identity groups, the word “community” often crops up. The working class, gay people, black people or Muslims are always represented by a “community leader”. We rarely, if ever, hear of the white middle-class community. “Communities” are defined in the eye of Default Man. Community seems to be a euphemism for the vulnerable lower orders. Community is “other”. Communities usually seem to be embattled, separate from society. “Society” is what Default Man belongs to.

In news stories such as the alleged “Trojan Horse” plot in Birmingham schools and the recent child-abuse scandal in Rotherham, the central involvement of an ethnic or faith “community” skews the attitudes of police, social services and the media. The Muslim or Pakistani heritage of those accused becomes the focus. I’m not saying that faith and ethnic groups don’t have their particular problems but the recipe for such trouble is made up of more than one spicy, foreign ingredient. I would say it involves more than a few handfuls of common-or-garden education/class issues, poor mental health and, of course, the essential ingredient in nearly all nasty or violent problems, men. Yeah, men – bit like them Default Men but without suits on.

In her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, published in 1975, Laura Mulvey coined the term “the male gaze”. She was writing about how the gaze of the movie camera reflected the heterosexual male viewpoint of the directors (a viewpoint very much still with us, considering that only 9 per cent of the top 250 Hollywood films in 2012 were directed by women and only 2 per cent of the cinematographers were female).

The Default Male gaze does not just dominate cinema, it looks down on society like the eye on Sauron’s tower in The Lord of the Rings. Every other identity group is “othered” by it. It is the gaze of the expensively nondescript corporate leader watching consumers adorn themselves with his company’s products the better to get his attention.

Default Man feels he is the reference point from which all other values and cultures are judged. Default Man is the zero longitude of identities.

He has forged a society very much in his own image, to the point where now much of what other groups think and feel is the same. They take on the attitudes of Default Man because they are the attitudes of our elders, our education, our government, our media. If Default Men approve of something it must be good, and if they disapprove it must be bad, so people end up hating themselves, because their internalised Default Man is berating them for being female, gay, black, silly or wild.

I often hear women approvingly describe themselves or other women as feisty. Feisty, I feel, has sexist implications, as if standing up for yourself was exceptional in a woman. It sounds like a word that a raffish Lothario would use about a difficult conquest.

I once gave a talk on kinky sex and during the questions afterwards a gay woman floated an interesting thought: “Is the legalising of gay marriage an attempt to neutralise the otherness of homosexuals?” she asked. Was the subversive alternative being neutered by allowing gays to marry and ape a hetero lifestyle? Many gay people might have enjoyed their dangerous outsider status. Had Default Man implanted a desire to be just like him?

Is the fact that we think like Default Man the reason why a black female Doctor Who has not happened, that it might seem “wrong” or clunky? In my experience, when I go to the doctor I am more likely to see a non-white woman than a Default Man.

It is difficult to tweezer out the effect of Default Man on our culture, so ingrained is it after centuries of their rules. A friend was once on a flight from Egypt. As it came in to land at Heathrow he looked down at the rows of mock-Tudor stockbroker-belt houses in west London. Pointing them out, he said to the Egyptian man sitting next to him: “Oh well, back to boring old England.” The Egyptian replied, “Ah, but to me this is very exotic.” And he was right. To much of the world the Default Englishman is a funny foreign folk icon, with his bowler hat, his Savile Row suit and Hugh Grant accent, living like Reggie Perrin in one of those polite suburban semis. All the same, his tribal costume and rituals have probably clothed and informed the global power elite more than any other culture. Leaders wear his clothes, talk his language and subscribe to some version of his model of how society “should be”.

When I was at art college in the late Seventies/early Eighties, one of the slogans the feminists used was: “Objectivity is Male Subjectivity.” This brilliantly encapsulates how male power nestles in our very language, exerting influence at the most fundamental level. Men, especially Default Men, have put forward their biased, highly emotional views as somehow “rational”, more considered, more “calm down, dear”. Women and “exotic” minorities are framed as “passionate” or “emotional” as if they, the Default Men, had this unique ability to somehow look round the side of that most interior lens, the lens that is always distorted by our feelings. Default Man somehow had a dispassionate, empirical, objective vision of the world as a birthright, and everyone else was at the mercy of turbulent, uncontrolled feelings. That, of course, explained why the “others” often held views that were at such odds with their supposedly cool, analytic vision of the world.

Recently, footage of the UN spokesman Chris Gunness breaking down in tears as he spoke of the horrors occurring in Gaza went viral. It was newsworthy because reporters and such spokespeople are supposed to be dispassionate and impartial. To show such feelings was to be “unprofessional”. And lo! The inherited mental health issues of Default Man are cast as a necessity for serious employment.

I think Default Man should be made aware of the costs and increasing obsolescence of this trait, celebrated as “a stiff upper lip”. This habit of denying, recasting or suppressing emotion may give him the veneer of “professionalism” but, as David Hume put it: “Reason is a slave of the passions.” To be unaware of or unwilling to examine feelings means those feelings have free rein to influence behaviour unconsciously. Unchecked, they can motivate Default Man covertly, unacknowledged, often wreaking havoc. Even if rooted in long-past events in the deep unconscious, these emotions still fester, churning in the dark at the bottom of the well. Who knows what unconscious, screwed-up “personal journeys” are being played out on the nation by emotionally illiterate Default Men?

Being male and middle class and being from a generation that still valued the stiff upper lip means our Default Man is an ideal candidate for low emotional awareness. He sits in a gender/ class/age nexus marked “Unexploded Emotional Time Bomb”.

These people have been in charge of our world for a long time.

Things may be changing.
 

****
 

Women are often stereotyped as the emotional ones, and men as rational. But, after the 2008 crash, the picture looked different, as Hanna Rosin wrote in an article in the Atlantic titled “The End of Men”:

Researchers have started looking into the relationship between testosterone and excessive risk, and wondering if groups of men, in some basic hormonal way, spur each other to make reckless decisions. The picture emerging is a mirror image of the traditional gender map: men and markets on the side of the irrational and overemotional, and women on the side of the cool and level-headed.

Over the centuries, empirical, clear thinking has become branded with the image of Default Men. They were the ones granted the opportunity, the education, the leisure, the power to put their thoughts out into the world. In people’s minds, what do professors look like? What do judges look like? What do leaders look like? The very aesthetic of seriousness has been monopolised by Default Man. Practically every person on the globe who wants to be taken seriously in politics, business and the media dresses up in some way like a Default Man, in a grey, western, two-piece business suit. Not for nothing is it referred to as “power dressing”. We’ve all seen those photo ops of world leaders: colour and pattern shriek out as anachronistic. Consequently, many women have adopted this armour of the unremarkable. Angela Merkel, the most powerful woman in the world, wears a predictable unfussy, feminised version of the male look. Hillary Clinton has adopted a similar style. Some businesswomen describe this need to tone down their feminine appearance as “taking on the third gender”.

Peter Jones on Dragons’ Den was once referred to as “eccentric” for wearing brightly coloured stripy socks. So rigid is the Default Man look that men’s suit fashions pivot on tiny changes of detail at a glacial pace. US politicians wear such a narrow version of the Default Man look that you rarely see one wearing a tie that is not plain or striped.

Suits you, sir: Grayson Perry as Default Man.
Photo: Kalpesh Lathigra/New Statesman

One tactic that men use to disguise their subjectively restricted clothing choices is the justification of spurious function. As if they need a watch that splits lap times and works 300 feet underwater, or a Himalayan mountaineer’s jacket for a walk in the park. The rufty-tufty army/hunter camouflage pattern is now to boys as pink is to girls. Curiously, I think the real function of the sober business suit is not to look smart but as camouflage. A person in a grey suit is invisible, in the way burglars often wear hi-vis jackets to pass as unremarkable “workmen”. The business suit is the uniform of those who do the looking, the appraising. It rebuffs comment by its sheer ubiquity. Many office workers loathe dress-down Fridays because they can no longer hide behind a suit. They might have to expose something of their messy selves through their “casual” clothes. Modern, overprofessionalised politicians, having spent too long in the besuited tribal compound, find casual dress very difficult to get right convincingly. David Cameron, while ruining Converse basketball shoes for the rest of us, never seemed to me as if he belonged in a pair.

When I am out and about in an eye-catching frock, men often remark to me, “Oh, I wish I could dress like you and did not have to wear a boring suit.” Have to! The male role is heavily policed from birth, by parents, peers and bosses. Politicians in particular are harshly kept in line by a media that seems to uphold more bizarrely rigid standards of conformity than those held by any citizen. Each component of the Default Male role – his gender, his class, his age and his sexuality – confines him to an ever narrower set of behaviours, until riding a bicycle or growing a beard, having messy hair or enjoying a pint are seen as ker-azy eccentricity. The fashionable members’ club Shoreditch House, the kind of place where “creatives” with two iPhones and three bicycles hang out, has a “No Suits” rule. How much of this is a pseudo-rebellious pose and how much is in recognition of the pernicious effect of the overgrown schoolboy’s uniform, I do not know.

I dwell on the suit because I feel it exemplifies how the upholders of Default Male values hide in plain sight. Imagine if, by democratic decree, the business suit was banned, like certain items of Islamic dress have been banned in some countries. Default Men would flounder and complain that they were not being treated with “respect”.

The most pervasive aspect of the Default Man identity is that it masquerades very efficiently as “normal” – and “normal”, along with “natural”, is a dangerous word, often at the root of hateful prejudice. As Sherrie Bourg Carter, author of High-Octane Women, writes:

Women in today’s workforce . . . are experiencing a much more camouflaged foe – second-generation gender biases . . . “work cultures and practices that appear neutral and natural on their face”, yet they reflect masculine values and life situations of men.

Personally, working in the arts, I do not often encounter Default Man en masse, but when I do it is a shock. I occasionally get invited to formal dinners in the City of London and on arrival, I am met, in my lurid cocktail dress, with a sea of dinner jackets; perhaps harshly, my expectations of a satisfying conversation drop. I feel rude mentioning the black-clad elephant in the room. I sense that I am the anthropologist allowed in to the tribal ritual.

Of course, this weird minority, these curiously dominant white males, are anything but normal. “Normal,” as Carl Jung said, “is the ideal aim for the unsuccessful.” They like to keep their abnormal power low-key: the higher the power, the duller the suit and tie, a Mercedes rather than a Rolls, just another old man chatting casually to prime ministers at the wedding of a tabloid editor.

Revolution is happening. I am loath to use the R word because bearded young men usually characterise it as sudden and violent. But that is just another unhelpful cliché. I feel real revolutions happen thoughtfully in peacetime. A move away from the dominance of Default Man is happening, but way too slowly. Such changes in society seem to happen at a pace set by incremental shifts in the animal spirits of the population. I have heard many of the “rational” (ie, male) arguments against quotas and positive discrimination but I feel it is a necessary fudge to enable just change to happen in the foreseeable future. At the present rate of change it will take more than a hundred years before the UK parliament is 50 per cent female.

The outcry against positive discrimination is the wail of someone who is having their privilege taken away. For talented black, female and working-class people to take their just place in the limited seats of power, some of those Default Men are going to have to give up their seats.

Perhaps Default Man needs to step down from some of his most celebrated roles. I’d happily watch a gay black James Bond and an all-female Top Gear, QI or Have I Got News for You. Jeremy Paxman should have been replaced by a woman on Newsnight. More importantly, we need a quota of MPs who (shock) have not been to university but have worked on the shop floor of key industries; have had life experiences that reflect their constituents’; who actually represent the country rather than just a narrow idea of what a politician looks like. The ridiculousness of objections to quotas would become clear if you were to suggest that, instead of calling it affirmative action, we adopted “Proportionate Default Man Quotas” for government and business. We are wasting talent. Women make up a majority of graduates in such relevant fields as law.

Default Man seems to be the embodiment of George Bernard Shaw’s unreasonable man: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to make the world adapt to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Default Man’s days may be numbered; a lot of his habits are seen at best as old-fashioned or quaint and at worst as redundant, dangerous or criminal. He carries a raft of unhelpful habits and attitudes gifted to him from history – adrenalin addiction, a need for certainty, snobbery, emotional constipation and an overdeveloped sense of entitlement – which have often proved disastrous for society and can also stop poor Default Man from leading a fulfilling life.

Earlier this year, at the Being A Man festival at the Southbank Centre in London, I gave a talk on masculinity called: “Men, Sit Down for your Rights!”. A jokey title, yes, but one making a serious point: that perhaps, if men were to loosen their grip on power, there might be some benefits for them. The straitjacket of the Default Man identity is not necessarily one happily donned by all members of the tribe: many struggle with the bad fit of being leader, provider, status hunter, sexual predator, respectable and dignified symbol of straight achievement. Maybe the “invisible weightless backpack” that the US feminist Peggy McIntosh uses to describe white privilege, full of “special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks”, does weigh rather a lot after all.

Grayson Perry is a Turner Prize-winning artist. In 2012, his series All In The Best Possible Taste was broadcast on Channel 4, and in 2013 he delivered the BBC’s Reith Lectures. He guest-edited the New Statesman in October 2014.

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Are smart toys spying on children?

If you thought stepping on a Lego was bad, consider the new ways in which toys can hurt and harm families.

In January 1999, the president of Tiger Electronics, Roger Shiffman, was forced to issue a statement clearing the name of the company’s hottest new toy. “Furby is not a spy,” he announced to the waiting world.

Shiffman was speaking out after America’s National Security Agency (NSA) banned the toy from its premises. The ban was its response to a playground rumour that Furbies could be taught to speak, and therefore could record and repeat human speech. “The NSA did not do their homework,” said Shiffman at the time.

But if America’s security agencies are still in the habit of banning toys that can record, spy, and store private information, then the list of contraband items must be getting exceptionally long. Nearly 18 years after TE were forced to deny Furby’s secret agent credentials, EU and US consumer watchdogs are filing complaints about a number of WiFi and Bluetooth connected interactive toys, also known as smart toys, which have hit the shelves. Equipped with microphones and an internet connection, many have the power to invade both children’s and adults’ private lives.

***

“We wanted a smart toy that could learn and grow with a child,” says JP Benini, the co-founder of the CogniToys “Dino”, an interactive WiFi-enabled plastic dinosaur that can hold conversations with children and answer their questions. Benini and his team won the 2014 Watson Mobile Developer Challenge, allowing them to use the question-answering software IBM Watson to develop the Dino. As such, unlike the “interactive” toys of the Nineties and Noughties, Dino doesn’t simply reiterate a host of pre-recorded stock phrases, but has real, organic conversations. “We grew it from something that was like a Siri for kids to something that was more conversational in nature.”

In order for this to work, Dino has a speaker in one nostril and a microphone in the other, and once a child presses the button on his belly, everything they say is processed by the internet-connected toy. The audio files are turned into statistical data and transcripts, which are then anonymised and encrypted. Most of this data is, in Benini’s words, “tossed out”, but his company, Elemental Path, which owns CogniToys, do store statistical data about a child, which they call “Play Data”. “We keep pieces from the interaction, not the full interaction itself,” he tells me.

“Play Data” are things like a child’s favourite colour or sport, which are used to make a profile of the child. This data is then available for the company to view, use, and pass on to third parties, and for parents to see on a “Parental Panel”. For example, if a child tells Dino their favourite colour is “red”, their mother or father will be able to see this on their app, and Elemental Path will be able to use this information to, Benini says, “make a better toy”.

Currently, the company has no plans to use the data with any external marketers, though it is becoming more and more common for smart toys to store and sell data about how they are played with. “This isn’t meant to be just another monitoring device that's using the information that it gathers to sell it back to its user,” says Benini.

Sometimes, however, Elemental Path does save, store, and use the raw audio files of what a child has said to the toy. “If the Dino is asked a question that it doesn’t know, we take that question and separate it from the actual child that’s asking it and it goes into this giant bucket of unresolved questions and we can analyse that over time,” says Benini. It is worth noting, however, that Amazon reviews of the toy claim it is frequently unable to answer questions, meaning there is potentially an abundance of audio saved, rather than it being an occasional occurrence.

CogniToys have a relatively transparent Privacy Policy on their website, and it is clear that Benini has considered privacy at length. He admits that the company has been back and forth about how much data to store, originally offering parents the opportunity to see full transcripts of what their child had been saying, until many fed back that they found this “creepy”. Dino is not the first smart toy to be criticised in this way.

Hello Barbie is the world’s first interactive Barbie doll, and when it was released by Mattel in 2015, it was met with scorn by parents’ rights groups and privacy campaigners. Like Dino, the doll holds conversations with children and stores data about them which it passes back to the parents, and articles expressing concerns about the toy featured on CNN, the Guardian, and the New York Times. Despite Dino’s similarities, however, Benini’s toy received almost no negative attention, while Hello Barbie won the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s prize for worst toy of the year 2015.

“We were lucky with that one,” he says, “Like the whole story of the early bird gets the worm but the second worm doesn’t get eaten. Coming second on all of this allowed us to be prepared to address the privacy concerns in greater depth.”

Nonetheless, Dino is in many ways essentially the same as Hello Barbie. Both toys allow companies and parents to spy on children’s private playtimes, and while the former might seem more troubling, the latter is not without its problems. A feature on the Parental Panel of the Dino also allows parents to see the exact wording of questions children have asked about certain difficult topics, such as sex or bullying. In many ways, this is the modern equivalent of a parent reading their child's diary. 

“Giving parents the opportunity to side-step their basic responsibility of talking to, engaging with, encouraging and reassuring their child is a terrifying glimpse into a society where plastic dinosaurs rule and humans are little more than machines providing the babies for the reptile robots to nurture,” says Renate Samson, the chief executive of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch. “We are used to technology providing convenience in our lives to the detriment of our privacy, but allowing your child to be taught, consoled and even told to meditate by a WiFi connected talking dinosaur really is a step in the wrong direction.”

***

Toy companies and parents are one thing, however, and to many it might seem trivial for a child’s privacy to be comprised in this way. Yet many smart toys are also vulnerable to hackers, meaning security and privacy are under threat in a much more direct way. Ken Munro, of Pen Test Partners, is an ethical hacker who exposed security flaws in the interactive smart toy “My Friend Cayla” by making her say, among other things, “Calm down or I will kick the shit out of you.”

“We just thought ‘Wow’, the opportunity to get a talking doll to swear was too good,” he says. “It was the kid in me. But there were deeper concerns.”

Munro explains that any device could connect to the doll over Bluetooth, provided it was in range, as the set-up didn’t require a pin or password. He also found issues with the encryption processes used by the company. “You can say anything to a child through the doll because there's no security,” he says. “That means you've got a device that can potentially be used to groom a child and that's really creepy.”

Pen Test Partners tells companies about the flaws they find with their products in a process they call “responsible disclosure”. Most of the time, companies are grateful for the information, and work through ways to fix the problem. Munro feels that Vivid Toy Group, the company behind Cayla, did a “poor job” at fixing the issue. “All they did was put one more step in the process of getting it to swear for us.”

It is one thing for a hacker to speak to a child through a toy and another for them to hear them. Early this year, a hack on baby monitors ignited such concerns. But any toy with speech recognition that is connected to the internet is also vulnerable to being hacked. The data that is stored about how children play with smart toys is also under threat, as Fisher Price found out this year when a security company managed to obtain the names, ages, birthdays, and genders of children who had played with its smart toys. In 2015, VTech also admitted that five million of its customers had their data breached in a hack.

“The idea that your child shares their playtime with a device which could potentially be hacked, leaving your child’s inane or maybe intimate and revealing questions exposed is profoundly worrying,” says Samson. Today, the US Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said in a statement that smart toys “pose an imminent and immediate threat to the safety and security of children in the United States”. 

Munro says big brands are usually great at tackling these issues, but warns about smaller, cheaper brands who have less to lose than companies like Disney or Fisher Price. “I’m not saying they get it right but if someone does find a problem they’ve got a huge incentive to get it right subsequently,” he says of larger companies. Thankfully, Munro says that he found Dino to be secure. “I would be happy for my kids to play with it,” he says. “We did find a couple of bugs but we had a chat with them and they’re a good bunch. They aren’t perfect but I think they’ve done a hell of a lot of a better job than some other smart toy vendors.”

Benini appears alert to security and the credibility it gives his company. “We took the security very, very seriously,” he says. “We were still building our systems whilst these horror stories were coming about so I already set pipelines and parameters in place. With a lot of devices out there it seems that security takes a backseat to the idea, which is really unfortunate when you’re inviting these devices into your home.”

As well as being wary of smaller brands, Munro advises that parents should look out for Bluetooth toys without a secure pairing process (ie. any device can pair with the toy if near enough), and to think twice about which toys you connect to your WiFi. He also advises to use unique passwords for toys and their corresponding apps.

“You might think ‘It's just a toy, so I can use the same password I put in everything else’ – dog’s name, football club, whatever – but actually if that ever got hacked you’d end up getting all your accounts that use that same password hacked,” he says.

Despite his security advice, Munro describes himself as “on the fence” about internet-connected smart toys as a whole. “Most internet of things devices can be hacked in one way or another,” he says. “I would urge caution.”

***

Is all of this legal? Companies might not be doing enough ethically to protect the privacy of children, but are they acting responsibly within the confines of the law?

Benini explains that Dino complies with the United States Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of which there is no real equivalent in the UK. COPPA says that companies must have parental permission to collect personal information over the internet about children under 13 years of age. “We’ve tried to go above and beyond the original layout of COPPA,” says Benini, when describing CogniToys transparent privacy documents. Parents give their consent for Elemental Path to collect their children’s data when they download the app that pairs with the toy.

Dino bears a striking similarity to Amazon Echo and Google Home, smart speakers that listen out for commands and questions in your home. Everything that is said to Amazon Echo is recorded and sent to the cloud, and an investigation by the Guardian earlier this year discovered that this does not comply with COPPA. We are therefore now in a strange position whereby many internet of things home devices are legally considered a threat to a child’s privacy, whereas toys with the same capabilities are not. This is an issue because many parents may not actually be aware that they are handing over their children’s data when installing a new toy.

As of today, EU consumer rights groups are also launching complaints against certain smart toys, claiming they breach the EU Unfair Contract Terms Directive and the EU Data Protection Directive, as well as potentially the Toy Safety Directive. Though smart toys may be better regulated in Europe, there are no signs that the problem is being tackled in the UK. 

At a time when the UK government are implementing unprecedented measures to survey its citizens on the internet and Jeremy Hunt wants companies to scour teens’ phones for sexts, it seems unlikely that any legislation will be enacted that protects children’s privacy from being violated by toy companies. Indeed, many internet of things companies – including Elemental Path – admit they will hand over your data to government and law enforcement officials when asked.

***

As smart toys develop, the threat they pose to children only becomes greater. The inclusion of sensors and cameras means even more data can be collected about children, and their privacy can and will be compromised in worrying ways.

Companies, hackers, and even parents are denying children their individual right to privacy and private play. “Children need to feel that they can play in their own place,” says Samson. It is worrying to set a precedent where children get used to surveillance early on. All of this is to say nothing of the educational problems of owning a toy that will tell you (rather than teach you) how to spell “space” and figure out “5+8”.

In a 1999 episode of The Simpsons, “Grift of the Magi”, a toy company takes over Springfield Elementary and spies on children in order to create the perfect toy, Funzo. It is designed to destroy all other toys, just in time for Christmas. Many at the time criticised the plot for being absurd. Like the show's prediction of President Trump, however, it seems that we are living in a world where satire slowly becomes reality.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.