A divine literary intelligence

In one of the last interviews with Iris Murdoch, Jason Cowley found her still pondering on the space

Late in the summer of 1993, when I worked as a reporter on the Bookseller magazine, I was despatched to interview Iris Murdoch at her large, eccentrically dishevelled house in north Oxford. She had just published The Green Knight, her 25th novel, and I was amazed when my idle request for an interview was granted. As it turned out, it was to be one of the last she ever gave. Not four years away from being an undergraduate, I was gauche and clumsy in her presence, mumbling the word "Dame" several times when she opened the door and stumbling over books scattered across her narrow hallway. My first question, describing one of her characters as "imperiously innocent", was greeted with a sympathetic smile and then a question of her own: "What exactly do you mean by that, young man?"

It was hard, listening to the tape of our conversation again this week, not to read into the gaps and omissions in her sentences - the stumbles and pauses, the memory lapses - early evidence of the Alzheimer's disease that banished her, for the last 30 months of her life, to a twilight realm of memory loss and baffled wonder. That morning, her stomach gently rumbling, she spoke with powerful regret of what she saw as the hard secularism of the modern world. "I think people must make an effort to retain Christianity, but in a non-literal form, as it were - not having to believe in God as a person or that Christ was divine, but to believe in everything that Christ meant. This is something that mustn't be lost . . . I believe it is quite possible to have a kind of teaching of religion which is not just meant for Christians. Some sort of teaching of morals should be present in schools. The problem with so many schools is that they remain under the influence of the free thinkers of 1968; they don't bother about spelling and everyone is into free expression."

Her fiction can be read as a kind of an extended elegy for that lost world of religious certainty of which she spoke, her characters stumbling unhappily in the spaces where God used to be. Her best novels are intricate moral parables, mini-quests on which her always educated creations embark to answer the question posed by Michael in The Bell: "What is the requirement of the good life?" A moral philosopher, Murdoch was genuinely troubled by this question, and she worried away at it, returning again and again to it, as she sought to refine and animate a secular morality. If her writing could be solemn, over-determined and repetitive, it was also surprisingly sensual and hard to forget. Hard to forget because of its very strangeness and eerie rigour. She sounded like no other writer.

Murdoch famously never allowed her work to be edited. It began to show. As she grew older, her novels, particularly the sequence of five beginning with The Philosopher's Pupil (1983) and ending in The Green Knight, became longer, more opaque and mannered: a great continuous symphony, with each work an instrument complementing and commenting on the one that went before. Late-phase Murdoch invariably featured a brilliant charismatic, a Wittgenstein-like figure who exerts a mesmeric hold over a group of people - Lucas or Peter in The Green Knight, Gerald Hernshaw in The Book and the Brotherhood, John Roberts in The Philosopher's Pupil; the characters' love relations are painfully intertwined; there are Shakespearean echoes; there is a mythic or visionary perspective; and death is always the intruder.

Peter Conradi, in his Guardian obituary this week, approvingly compared Murdoch to Dostoevsky. This is an important mistake. Murdoch may have grappled, like Dostoevsky, with moral and theological dilemmas, but there is none of the Russian's urban mania in her fiction, little of his existential extremism or tortured interiority. Reading Dostoevsky you feel that anything might happen; that the author himself, like a racing driver pushing himself and his car to the limit, had no idea where his erratic talent might take him, or what form his novel would take. Murdoch, by contrast, knew absolutely everything about her characters and the form of her novel before she began writing. The hard work was in the thought and planning; there was little to surprise her in its execution. So hers was a controlling, almost divine literary intelligence.

Iris Murdoch's own search for the good life was politically interesting; she metaphorically crossed the floor. Her journey from youthful illusion to disillusionment, from early support of the Communist Party to a kind of inchoate Thatcherism, was a model for her generation. By the time I met her a sad twilight had settled over her; she confessed to being "deeply disillusioned" by the contemporary world, by the cheapening of religion and the failure of progressive educational policies (she considered the comprehensive model a disastrous experiment in social engineering, more extreme than even the educational system of Soviet Russia).

"I became a Marxist at the time of the Spanish civil war: it was an emotional period as those who were against Franco were swept to the left," she told me. "At that time, I read a lot of Lenin and was caught up with the notion of building a better world. But I became quickly disillusioned with Marxism; the ideals were OK but what was being done in its name was awful. I remained on the left for a long time, up until the emergence of Arthur Scargill, really. I don't know where I am now - I feel very distressed by politics."

As a young woman Murdoch met Sartre and was swayed by the radical self- liberation of existentialism; she moved on to embrace a kind of ethical Platonism through which to see the good is simply to see the world as it really is.

To the end, though, she was unable to make that final leap into faith: a theologian in search of a consoling eschatology. "God does not and cannot exist," she wrote. "But what led us to conceive of him does exist and is constantly experienced and pictured. That is, as an Idea, and also incarnate in knowledge and work and love."

She and John Bayley, her devoted husband of more than 40 years, had no television. "At intervals," she told me, chuckling, "we get notes from the local authorities saying, 'We see that you have no television set, what is the reason for this?' and I have to reply, 'We don't like television'. I very much agree with Whitehouse and others that indiscriminate television can be very damaging to children, even the very jokey things."

The sadness is that Iris Murdoch, in her last, levelling years of illness, came to like television very much indeed, particularly Teletubbies, which she would watch in a kind of rapture each morning, one of the best minds of her generation entranced by the overlit, technicolour simplicities of La-La, Dipsy, Tinky-Winky and Po.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kick out the image-makers

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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.