This Popular Christmas Doll May Make Children Fear Christmas More than Love It

The best-selling Christmas toy embodies and encourages acceptance of surveillance as a necessary aspect of modern life.

 


With Thanksgiving behind us, Christmas carols and traditions will take center stage as kids spend the next month hoping they’ll make the Nice list and thus ensure they get their seasonal wishes. Santa as an arbiter of “niceness” has long been a traditional aspect of his modern appeal. Back in 1934, John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie’s song, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” taught us that,

“He sees you when you're sleeping,
He knows when you're awake.
He knows if you've been bad or good,
So be good for goodness sake!”

It’s all well and good, and many parents have surely played with the notion of Christmas as a time when children should be on their best behavior lest they be caught by Santa being naughty. But “The Elf on the Shelf,” a toy a little over a decade old, has radically changed that narrative, making those 1930s lyrics feel all the more real.

The toy, created in 2004 by Carol Aebersold and daughter Chanda Bell, is billed as one of Santa’s “scout elves.” As the toy’s site notes, “During the Christmas season, the elves are adopted by families and fly back to the North Pole every night to tell Santa about the day’s adventures.” It’s all, quite literally, fun and games, but that hasn’t stopped parents, journalists, and academics from suggesting that there’s a very warped idea at the heart of this seasonal tradition that has already been turned into a best-selling picture book, an animated CBS television special, and even a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon.

Digital technology professor Laura Pinto has written a paper published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives where she argues that the surveillance aspect of this playful doll embodies the very principles of a police state that Michel Foucault outlined when, in his seminal study Discipline and Punish, he studied Jeremy Bentham’s “Panopticon,” a prison structure that allowed a single watchman to observe all inmates without them being able to tell whether they are being watched.

“I don’t think the elf is a conspiracy and I realize we’re talking about a toy,” Pinto told The Washington Post. “It sounds humorous, but we argue that if a kid is okay with this bureaucratic elf spying on them in their home, it normalizes the idea of surveillance and in the future, restrictions on our privacy might be more easily accepted.”

The complaints are not entirely new. Back in 2012, Kate Tuttle at The Atlantic wrote that “By far the worst thing about the Elf, though, is its message, its story, its raison d'etre: to spy on kids,” and pointed out the many negative reviews on Amazon for the toy which talked it up as a “narc” and “creepy.” The Washington Post had gone even further back in 2011, anticipating Pinto’s own Foucauldian argument: The Elf on the Shelf “is just another nannycam in a nanny state obsessed with penal codes.”

Of course, while the burgeoning Elf on the Shelf industry keeps growing (now you can register your Elf online, perhaps unwittingly echoing the very rhetoric Pinto is singling out), parents should feel encouraged to think about how and why a toy is being used to police behavior and whether the push to think of categories like “naughty” and “nice” need be only leveraged to guarantee gifts during the holiday season. Perhaps we should really just be reminding our kids to be good for goodness sake!


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Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Upstreamism tasks health care professionals to combat unhealthy social and cultural influences that exist outside — or upstream — of medical facilities.
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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.