All I want for a low-tech Christmas

How far can I trust my automated online gift adviser? AOL’s new Shopping Buddy is certainly pretty clever. Added to the online group’s US instant messaging service in time for the seasonal shopping frenzy, it provides users with gift suggestions from the internet after a robotically chirpy exchange of messages such as “Who R U shopping 4?” and “OK, I’m searching for matches for you. Gimme a sec.” 

But Shopping Buddy seems to have some wires crossed. When I asked for suggestions for “educational toys”, it offered Kerastase Nutritive Bain Satin Shampoo ($25) along with Fisher-Price’s Laugh and Learn Musical Learning Chair ($36.95) and the Glow-in-the-Dark Astro-Logix Kit ($10.95). Such are the perils of the fast-evolving world of online retail.

In some ways, Shopping Buddy seems behind the times. Its list of educational toys included Count ’n’ Go – basically a wooden abacus – and the Frogs and Turtles Toob (a tube of plastic amphibians from an educational marketer who obviously thinks spelling ’n’ stuff is not so important). Contrast the top-12 toy list produced this year by Toy Wishes magazine. Ten of the 12 listed toys involve advanced electronics. Even the home karate studio (aged three and up) comes with a DVD.

This year, the toy industry has integrated the advances of digital and wireless technology into traditional toys as never before. The Toy Wishes list, for example, includes iDog, a $30 robotic dog that dances and twitches to the music it plays, with a personality that changes depending on how much you play with him. Hasbro’s new “emoto-tronic” Furby toy includes voice-recognition technology and changing facial expressions.

Some are targeting even younger children with interactive electronics. Tiny Love, the Israeli toy maker that brought the world the first three-dimensional baby activity gym, is offering MagIQ, a DVD for babies and toddlers with an accompanying furry toy that responds with chortles and comments to wireless cues.

So why is Shopping Buddy not suggesting I buy these toys? Does it know that my wife vetoed my sudden impulse last year to buy our four-year-old a LeapFrog computer game, forcing him to work out his issues instead with wooden building blocks? Does Shopping Buddy know that I recently convinced the boy that a cardboard box with holes for the arms really does make him look like Buzz Lightyear? That I fear for a future where children could be savaged by their iDogs or made to cry by a Furby with too much attitude?

Maybe Shopping Buddy just got lucky rather than actually pegging me for a neo-Luddite. But, one day, fed on the terabytes of data from our credit cards, from loyalty programmes and from point-of-sale data, it surely will be able to work it out for real.

So perhaps I should throw a random spanner in the works, and give our son some of that Kerastase Nutritive Bain Satin Shampoo for Christmas after all.

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