When Fakes Aren't Fake Enough

Sometimes fakes aren’t fake enough. Intuition says if you want a fake, you want a fake as close to genuine as possible. For fakes, there's no such thing as too real. But, there’s nothing intuitive about this Australian study finding that teenage girls given infant simulation dolls were more likely to get pregnant than girls who’d gone through regular sex ed.

Electric Sheep

The idea behind the dolls is that there's nothing a teenage girl would want less than motherhood. A child is a huge responsibility that will keep you from what you want. Sleep, for example. So they give these girls a doll that’s liable to start crying at all hours like a real infant. The dolls are a slightly creepy, but serviceable likeness that simulates parental responsibilities like comforting and feeding. Why don’t they work?

In one of my favorite novels, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? most animals have died off and the survivors are the object of veneration. Caring for animals shows empathy, spiritualism, and, incidentally, outrageous wealth. Many can’t afford animals so there’s a healthy market for fakes and a corresponding etiquette of neither asking nor telling. People attend to the artificial animals but don’t find it rewarding. These are poor substitutes. They want real animals. As the protagonist put it: “the tyranny of an object [is that it] doesn’t know I exist.”

We expect girls to hate these dolls. They’re designed to be a burden. No prestige is attached to young motherhood. Unlike caring for an electric sheep, caring for the doll is supposed to be an exercise in embarrassment. However, according to the study’s lead author some girls “became extremely attached to the babies, and they didn't want to give them back […] We had the extremes on either end, but in general […] the students enjoyed it.”

If not knowing we exist is the tyranny of objects, we don’t seem to mind. Caring for virtual thingscharacters or petshas gotten a lot more common. I find most enthralling games that acknowledge my actions; that responsively change the world around me. For a moment, I might forget I’m playing a game. These dolls, and those games, don’t know we exist but they sure as hell act like we do. They’re much better fakes than Dick’s electric sheep.             

A lack of critical distance might be the problem. Dolls don't refuse meals and they don't get sick. But they do coo when soothed or fed, like a real baby. To put girls off having kids perhaps we should replace the dolls with colicky bricks. Because these dolls are definitely fake, but maybe not fake enough.


Sean Stone

Sean Stone is a lover of the idiosyncratic, esoteric, and obscure. An old soul born at a young age on Vancouver Island, he now lives in Ottawa. He has a degree in Political Science and still finds that sort of thing interesting. He’d like to find some stimulating work to pay for new suits and old books.

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