An (An)Archive of Communication: Interactive Toys as Interlocutors

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.


In this article, I analyze the Speak & Spell electronic toy (Texas Instruments, 1978) from the perspective of the communication that it enables. I argue that such interactive devices can be seen as archives of future communication. As a media archaeologist working with electronic toys I often find the conceptualizations of these devices as mere tools for playing unsatisfactory. They seem to share more characteristics with archives than with instruments. Like archives, interactive toys hold in themselves a predefined choice of informations and interactions, thus enabling certain modes of inquiry and discouraging others. Especially the electronic toys that draw on algorithms and data to present the user with an imitation of human communication are able to offer branching paths of interlocution within their domain or topic. In the first part of this article I offer an explanation of the toy's technical structures that store speech and spelling data and enforce certain patterns of input and output between the device and its user. Then, I propose the use of the notion of the archive, or, alternatively, anarchive to describe the space of possibilities that defines this process of communication. In the last part I argue that the study of such algorithmic archives of possible communication needs to be based on interactive experimentation and can not be grounded in static recordings or descriptions alone.