Saturday, July 15, 2006

Daniel Goddemeyer's "Smoke" Doll: How Do We Measure Success?

Daniel Goddemeyer's Smoke doll breathes regularly in the presence of a child and experiences difficulty when exposed to cigarette smoke, yellowing and eventually dying when a critical level of inhalation is reached. The project's website explains:

The parents' realization that they are about to destroy the child's toy and that their smoking habits and consideration for the childs health are going to be visible to their social surroundings by an either healthy or sick doll will help to make the parents think about their smoking behaviour around their children.

It gains access to the parents home as an "innocent" object and gives the child a way to document and monitor the parents habits around them with the means of a physically visible object.

The doll takes the parents consideration for the child's health out of the parental home and makes this socially visible. For the parents, it is a lasting visual sign and accusing reminder of how much the child's health is affected by passive smoke.

Eyal Burstein's Progress Bar [via|link], pictured above, got me interested in how abstract processes can be visualized, and Smoke is interesting in the same way. But after thinking about it for a while and rereading the project description on Burstein's website, a few things that bothered me about this project have become clearer. Namely:
  • Children are punished directly, parents only indirectly. Depending on your perspective, this may mirror real life pretty accurately, but if the point is to change parents' behavior, the model might need adjustment. Anthropomorphism is strongest in the young; having a doll "die" could be very disturbing for a young child, even if the doll can then be brought back to "life."
  • There is no indication of what the declining health of the doll represents in human terms, which basically turns the reminder of secondhand smoke's ill effects into a graph with no axis labels. If this measured something specific, it might have more of an impact - it could even have a hidden display that the parent could use to check levels of secondhand smoke to see how the efforts they took (either to quit smoking altogether or to smoke only outside, improve ventilation, etc.) were paying off.
In sum, no one wants to hear "You're killing your child," for a variety of reasons, but many are genuinely interested in confronting the issue in a nonthreatening way. In a strange way, this seems like the perfect nagging type of gift for a well-meaning but intrusive outsider to introduce into a family to attempt to change parental behaviors, great for the grandmothers who write urgent letters to adviced columnists and routinely get told to butt out. Since the effects are measured in metaphorical rather than concrete terms, the effect of this doll is just a dramatic and highly confrontational form of nagging. Speaking as a parent (and nonsmoker), I can attest to how many better ways there are to help your adult child change for the better.

The doll seems strongest as a purely aesthetic statement, highly rewarding for those of us who already agree with its creator, like highly politicized art tends to be. But as its creator makes great pains to suggest that this is a truly useful object, I am left wondering if this type of doll could be applied elsewhere to greater benefit. Why not make pregnant teens carry something like this around to show them the risks their child will face when exposed to secondhand smoke from their own or someone else's smoking? What about a doll for toddlers that responds positively to gestures of affection and shuts down when it's abused, with Glo-Worm coloration to indicate its happiness level? One great example of a talking doll designed for a social and familial impact is the work-in-progress by Design That Matters: the Talking Cree Doll, which aims to be a "talking stick" that will bring generations of Native Americans together and help bring knowledge of the Cree language to the next generation. The toy's design goes well beyond the typical preprogrammed vocabulary of most talking dolls. From the group's project description:
The talking stick functions as a kind of bar code reader. After parents and elders stick appropriate tags on household items like chairs, tables, and doors and record messages into the device, the child 'reads' them with the toy, which 'speaks' the Cree word for the item. The toy allows the child to explore his or her immediate world at will, while reinforcing the acquisition of vocabulary through repetition.
I'm curious to know others' thoughts on the Smoke doll, both from a sociological and an aesthetic standpoint. Do you believe this is an effective tool for changing behaviors, or that it should be appreciated solely as an art object? Can an art object describe itself as a tool without having to function well as one in the real world - or does it function as a conceptual tool, educating by its existence rather than through its use? Do you have any other ideas or examples of how dolls could insinuate itself to affect change in an individual's behavior or a family dynamic?

Goddemeyer has some other ideas of his own; you can follow his work on his website.

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