Published 19 May 202323 May 2023 · Friday Features / Culture Long Furby memory hole Dan Hogan The year is 1998 and a spectre is haunting capitalism from ages six and up—the spectre of virtual and robotic kin. All the powers of the capitalist class have entered an unholy alliance to exploit this spectre: Tyco, Hasbro, and Mattel, or: Tickle Me Elmo, Furby, and Tamagotchi. Almost-earthling artefacts are sharpening the blades of consumerist desire by ventriloquising aliveness and kinship. The spectre of limited-edition innovation lures the worker into a frenzied state of manufactured want: the worker will join other workers to form a long line at the doors of a retailer before opening time, braving exposure to the elements and the authorities while the capitalist makes the robots scarce so as to engineer an increase in value. Breaking bones and snapping the tendons of retail workers, hijacking delivery trucks, and entering financial and moral debt manifest, nourishing the feedback loop of the spectre as it spirals outward. In short, history has shown violence to materialise if it permits a shortcut to owning a piece of the spectre. Furby-seekers of the world, seize the means of nostalgia production! * When Hasbro unleashed the Furby on the masses, in November 1998, shopping centres reported bouts of aggression erupting between shoppers and retailers who had sold out of the interactive toy. In Tewksbury, Massachusetts, and Arlington, Texas, Wal-Marts underestimated demand for the fluffy gremlin-like cyborg, resulting in a shortage. Sleepy queues camping out for opening time turned to threats of insurrection when word of the shortage got around the encampments. Stampedes of Furby-seekers in other parts of the country resulted in hand-to-hand combat, injuries, and property damage. Retail workers and authorities were primed to respond to violent consumers having learned lessons from the Tickle Me Elmo Christmas skirmishes. When Tyco released their interactive toy, just before the Christmas of ’96, retail workers were trampled and beaten as customers sought the Sesame Street sprite via any means necessary. Despite the strangeness inherent to the act of ‘tickling’, Elmo spearheaded a recurring phenomenon of violence defined by a type of capitalist impulse specific to the 1990s. People magazine reported an angry crowd of more than 300 descending on a Wal-Mart in New Brunswick, Canada, just after midnight, hungry to take home a talking robot that lived for tickles and tickles only. The crowd rushed retail worker Robert Waller after they spotted him with the bright red Elmo in his hands. An account in People Magazine on 13 January 1997 read as follows: ‘I was pulled under, trampled—the crotch was yanked out of my brand-new jeans,’ says Waller, who suffered a pulled hamstring, injuries to his back, jaw and knee, a broken rib and a concussion. ‘I was kicked with a white Adidas before I became unconscious.’ While Tickle Me Elmo and the Furby share similar stories of violence, the parallels end there. Tickle Me Elmo was catapulted to unprecedented levels of demand off the back of the decades-long popularity of Sesame Street. It was an easy sell. The doll was novel for its time but lacked the artificial state of mind featured two years later by the Furby. Tickle Me Elmo was static and unchangeable, whereas the Furby appeared unfixed, growing in an organic manner proportionate and unique to the relationship between the robot and its owner. Like a pet. While the Tickle Me Elmo user manual states, ‘One ticklish spot makes Elmo shake and roar with hysterical laughter. Each time you tickle him, his most ticklish spot changes location’ and ‘Ha ha ha … that tickles Elmo the most … ha ha ha …’, the electronic Furby user manual, written from the first-person perspective of a Furby, proclaims, ‘Please take me everywhere you go’ and ‘I am not afraid of the dark.’ Sporting an owl-like appearance and covered in colourful fur, the bug-eyed Furby stands at the size of about two fists. Various fur patterns and colour combinations were marched off the production line. Some designs were made rarer than others, resulting in a black market. Some of the rarer Furbies sell on eBay today for well over $1,000. The toys were pre-programmed to initially speak Furbish (the language of their home planet, Furbyland) and gradually transition to English, convincing children that their interactions and care—or nurture—had a tangible educative influence on another intelligent being. The Furby gave the impression of artificial intelligence but was not actually artificially intelligent. It was pre-programmed to perform a slowly unfolding illusion of sentient emotionality. Released in 1999, the rarest Furby was the result of a collaboration between Hasbro and FAO Schwarz. The Bejewelled Furby retailed for 100,000USD (equivalent to 266,784AUD, adjusted for inflation) and only five were made. Two were sold. The whereabouts of the other three is unknown. The Bejewelled Furby came furnished with wearable jewellery: tiara, earrings, and necklace forged in 18-karat gold fitted with sixty-three full cut diamonds, forty-four rubies, emeralds and sapphires. The source of the diamonds is unknown. By the year 2000 more than forty million Furbies were sitting in homes, clicking their mechanical tongues, screeching Ah-ah-ah-tah (‘feed me’ in English), and purring as owners stroked their mohawks and manes. The global uptake of the toy turned into moral panic as governments warned the Furby was capable of being used as a spying device. In the United States, a satellite intelligence operation and the National Security Agency rushed to write a policy forbidding employees from bringing their Furbies into the workplace. Robert Shiffman, owner of Tiger Electronics at the time, laughed off the NSA’s response, reassuring the public that the Furby was incapable of recording. In the same breath, he joked that his company was developing a Furby that would be able to drive a car and launch a space shuttle by the year 2000. Contemporary models of the Furby have integrated digital technology, with the creature’s mechanical eyes replaced with LED screens, allowing for an extensive range of animated emotions to be displayed (and hacked). In the early twenty-first century, studies led by Sherry Turkle for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Artificial Intelligence Laboratory sought to explore how we might begin to approach an understanding of a child’s attachment to interactive robots and digital pets. Turkle refers to Furbies as ‘relational artifacts’ capable of imprinting on the development of our interior emotional worlds by appearing to be inhabited by an organic psychology or sentient ‘states of mind’. The study posited that a child’s conceptualisation of artificial kindredness is resultant of the toy’s design, causing the child to develop a ‘cyborg consciousness’ in which they perceive the characteristics of their own sentience (thinking and feeling) as evidence of the Furby’s own ‘aliveness’. Turkle’s studies, which also looked at Tamagotchis and other robotic toys, concluded children viewed Furbies as being autonomous and ‘almost-alive’. * The Furby can be read as a potent artefact of late capitalism, notable both as a physical computational object and as an early relational artefact designed with the explicit function of exploiting an emotional relationship with its user. The Furby was a purveyor of artificial kindredness, rather than artificial intelligence—a sort of social media machine. The violence produced by Furby-seekers during the 1990s, a sensation idiosyncratic of the toy’s place in history, is also telling of the era’s descent into the latest stages of capitalism: the online marketplace. This positions it as the final rush before the information revolution in which a new tier of the ruling class emerged. Usurping both the landlord of bricks-and-mortar retailers and the capitalist who owned the means of production was the rise of the technocrat who owned monopolies over digital infrastructure, and owned the means of information. * Microblogging website Tumblr, which stores all of its users’ content on a server rented from Amazon on a metered basis, has been home to many ultra-specific online communities, including a flourishing community of Furby lovers, hackers and modifiers. Users have published DIY manuals describing how to do Furby repairs, beak carving, fur dyes, eyelash extensions, accessorising, personalised odourising, custom belly pouches and eye chips, and sound manipulation. Reverse-engineered schematics are available as are instructions on hacking the robot’s motors and infrared sensor to make the Furby move in new ways. Furbies have been converted into bongs and radios and conduits for Alexa, Amazon’s cloud-based voice service. Some have been hacked into musical instruments, ‘spirit boxes’ for channelling voices of the dead, and warbling demons with lasers for eyes. Nostalgia Trash transmuted into DIY treasures and semi-artisanal automatons. * Posting to their Furby fandom page, furbyfuzz.tumblr.com, artist Aloe Lavender (also known as lavlavkitten) brought the first Long Furby into the world in 2018. Photographs of the elongated or ‘longified’ metre-long 1998 Furby appearing in various poses exploded across the internet. lavlavkitten’s ground-breaking Long Furby was so well hacked that I initially thought I was looking at a new range of Furbies officially released by Hasbro. There were no Frankenstein-stitching or aesthetic inconsistencies. In ensuing posts, the grace of lavlavkitten’s pilot Long Furby was fully realised, her extreme length matched only by her radical elegance, curiosity, and playfulness. We see Long Furby standing at her full height, contemplating a homemade pizza cooling on a kitchen benchtop. Long Furby curled up snug on a chair. Long Furby luxuriating in the garden. Long Furby posing with a hot dog (the food’s length paling in comparison). Erik Olin Wright has argued in Understanding Class (2015) that an exit from capitalism, if possible, will be serviced as a rupture only possible under ‘nondemocratic conditions’. The Long Furby provides the image of an uncanny miniaturisation of a ruptural break from capitalism, a nondemocratic diorama: an artefact shot backwards to us from a future history. A possibility, or what Mark Fisher might refer to as ‘an ontological interregnum: a traumatic unworlding … not yet given a narrative motivation; an unresolved space that awaits reincorporation into another symbolic regime.’ Long Furby’s longified reconfiguration of Nostalgia Trash lands in our laps for us to stroke it gently, lovingly, our hands running the length of a new world created inside the shell of an old one. It is here that the Long Furby’s creator, hacker, and the toy itself sit as a site of poetic potentiality, offering themselves as a wreck-ready mini-structure with the kind of holes that allow it to be modified and joined to other things. Image by Dan Hogan Synthesised as a lacuna providing a viewing portal to the playful poetics required for rupture, the Long Furby does not result in authoritarian stasis. Its holes are not defined by absence but by the presence of a space with which multiple connectivities are possible—be they physical, metaphysical, or otherwise relational. The Long Furby operates as an abstraction of the structural presence of holes. Holes as providers of strength through the enhanced connection of materials, as tunnels of transmission, and holes as a refabrication of memory. Not unlike the thinking behind the holes at the end of a steel beam allowing it to be bolted to another steel beam, the Long Furby’s bastardisation of intellectual property is admirable and exciting. The hacked cyborg’s subjugation of capitalist relations reads like an artefact retrieved from a dead timeline and modified in order to make a small but no less important contribution to strengthening resolve in the face of a revoked future. In their 2019 work Capital is Dead: Is This Something Worse? McKenzie Wark challenges Wright’s assumption that the possibility of opening a portal through which we can leave capitalism is disallowed due to current conditions, writing: ‘I think we have to question that assumption, but not in a good way. Maybe this is already not capitalism, but something worse.’ Wark rightfully points to the proliferation of new forms of private property working to compound pre-existing capitalist forces and neoliberal hammers. Summoned by these is a new set of antagonistic relations exerted by a class of owners never before seen by history. She offers a rubric for identifying the emergence of this new ruling class. A new class defined by their planetary-scale ownership of the means of information flow, control, collection, storage, access, extraction, and analysis. This ruling class to rule the ruling class is what Wark dubs the ‘vectoralist class’: The vectoralist class owns and controls the vector, a concept I use to describe in the abstract the infrastructure on which information is routed, whether through time or space. A vector in geometry is simply a line of fixed length but of unfixed position. It’s a way of thinking about a technology as having something about it that shapes the world in a particular way, but which can shape different aspects of the world. You can own stocks or flows of information, but far better to own the vector, the legal and technical protocols for making otherwise abundant information scarce. Wark conceptualises a map stratifying Marx’s class binary of bourgeoisie and proletariat. The ruling class, or bourgeoisie, is defined in order of dominance and power: the vectoralist class (own the means of information) > the capitalist class (own the means of production) > the landlord/investor class (own land, property, infrastructure, services, shares, old money). The subordinate working classes, or the proletariat, are characterised as farmers > workers > hackers. The labour of farmers and workers is defined by creating units of commodities for the capitalist. The hacker, however, fastens new things, new information-ways—what could be considered the repurposing of Nostalgia Trash from the scrapyard of discontinued intellectual property. Wark crystallised this idea in A Hacker Manifesto (2004): ‘The slogan of the hacker class is not the workers of the world united, but the workings of the world untied.’ Hacker defined on these terms, I think, captures the DIY self-education culture, necessitated adaptability, and innovative resourcefulness inherent to working class communities. Jeff Bezos (vectoralist, commercial astronaut, and founder of Amazon) is on course to becoming the world’s first trillionaire—not because he owns large-scale means of production but because he owns most of the informational infrastructure through which the data extracted from our lives is funnelled, stored, and sold back to us via algorithms. Bezos owns the informational infrastructure the capitalist class must engage or ‘plug into’ in order to trade and produce commodities by extracting surplus capital from the labour of workers. He owns the holes to which the capitalist class must connect the nuts-and-bolts of their means of production. Take for example Amazon Web Services (AWS), the arm of the Amazon empire that provides metered pay-as-you-go cloud computing and programming infrastructure. AWS services more than 3.4 million customers worldwide through its over 200 services providing various solutions for ‘compute, storage, databases, networking, analytics, robotics, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), mobile, security, hybrid, virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR), media, and application development, deployment, and management.’ Customers include whole governments, companies, and individuals. Vectoralist heavyweights like Amazon and Google extract capital from the capitalist class by renting out storage, processing power and digital infrastructure. This pay-as-you-go arrangement between the vectoralist and capitalist works in the same metered way energy companies charge households for their electricity usage. Only the resource is not electricity usage—the product being metered is our data. Our everyday activities generate data that can overwhelmingly be traced back to informational infrastructure rented from Amazon and other vectoralists. As it stands, we have no control over the types of personal data that are coveted by vectoralists, such as digital records held by governments and utility companies relating to our existence and non-existence (taxes, births, deaths, marriages, and so on). Wherever data is generated and digitised, a vectoralist is enriched. Dating app Tinder is propped up by more than one AWS company, including Amazon Rekognition, providing users with fast and accurate face search, allowing you to identify a person in a photo or video using your private repository of face images. You can also verify identity by analyzing a face image against images you have stored for comparison. Every swipe, left or right, keeps Bezos on track to becoming a trillionaire. Amazon’s well-documented maltreatment of its workers has elicited many solidarity boycotts of the company’s online marketplace by individual consumers. However, the company’s planetary-scale ownership of informational architecture is yet to see consumer boycotts. Jeff Bezos owns the means of information used by these companies to deliver their core business, products, services, and activities: Netflix, Hasbro, Google, Apple, Centrelink and myGov, Westfield, TPG, Tumblr, EnergyAustralia, Uber, Jetstar, Qantas, NAB, Facebook, Twitch, Pokemon Go, Snapchat, Nike, Samsung, Scholastic, Phillips, Adobe, Twitter, Airbnb, General Electric Oil & Gas, Toyota, The Salvation Army, Johnson & Johnson, BBC, Shell, Kellogg’s, Conde Nast, Spotify, Dow Jones, LinkedIn, ESPN, Reddit, Nokia, Pinterest, Dropbox, Slack, Vodafone, and Disney, plus millions more, many of whom are not on the public record. There was a time when the utterance of ‘Amazon’ drew my mind to the rainforest. Every year the lungs of the Earth filter two billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to prevent the heat death of our planet. But now, the timeline has changed. When I google ‘Amazon’ the search engine is quick to inform me it has retrieved six billion results in 0.45 seconds. From the seven pages of search results offered to me by Google, the rainforest is only mentioned once on page 6. Amazon, instead, invokes a technology company, the lungs of Jeff Bezos, a vectoralist who earns a minimum of $3500 with every passing second. If we already live under something worse than capitalism, perhaps that thing’s defining feature is the emergence of a trillionaire class while the biosphere collapses and systemic inequalities are only enlarged and insidiously rebranded. As there is no ethical information infrastructure under capitalism, I wonder what one could look like if the means of information were seized and socialised. A Long Furby nine times the length of all human history? Let’s say one Long Furby is one metre in length and one Long Furby represents $1. If we were to make a Long Furby that is $1 trillion long, it would stretch from here on Earth to a point beyond our own solar system. If Long Furby’s feet remained on Earth, her head would be at a point in space that is 995 billion kilometres beyond Pluto. It would take one year for Long Furby’s earth-bound feet to orbit our sun while it would take her head 900,000 years. For every year experienced by Long Furby’s feet on Earth, 900,000 years will have passed for Long Furby’s head. Her head and feet wouldn’t only differ in age by almost a million years, they would belong to entirely different histories and timelines. Nostalgia is dead: is this something worse? Long Furby manifesto or Long Furby memory hole? I wonder if an artificial kinship is possible between me and the long cyborg gremlin sitting in the corner of my bedroom. Nostalgia Trash is capitalist treasure for the culture industries. Remakes, reimaginings, reboots and refreshed franchises from times gone are inescapable at this point. The Long Furby goes a different way. The Long Furby accepts Nostalgia Trash for what it is: capitalist detritus imprinted on our self-senses during childhood. Image by Dan Hogan Bearing witness to the emergence of the Long Furby online transported me to a bootleg future salvaged from the offscourings of nostalgia, an unmetered and unrealised narrative motivation. It was at once surprising, fun, and aesthetically unnerving. I felt spiritually compelled to bring a Long Furby into my life, to project something onto it. Did I want to own a piece of the spectre or was the pang yet another instruction issued by the political machinery of the nostalgia industries? It was interesting to observe how Long Furby operates as a tangible abolition of a private property not born from a visible anti-capitalist dreaming but from a vibrant internet fandom. From a dioramic micro-rupture, a community is born. It dares to stoke the possibility of an alternative to capitalism by presenting an exit path in miniature, even if it is strange and silly. I wonder if radical silliness could be a usable component in either challenging or at least surviving capitalism’s mutant successor. I wonder what unreleased representations of radical silliness could be generated in the image of the Long Furby? Perhaps the elongated automaton sitting in the corner of my bedroom is a serious reminder to consider radical silliness as a way of unmatching my identity from the interests of capital. The artificial kinship offered by playthings does not have to be thought of as lacking in meaning or utility, despite the disposability and superficiality strongly suggested by their origin stories forged in the spectre of a capitalist fad. It is these hyper-capitalist conditions (manufactured desire and scarcity) that make such relational artefacts ripe for hacking. I mean, what is there to lose beside what is already lost? Header image: Victoria Pickering Dan Hogan Dan Hogan (they/them) is a writer and editor from San Remo, NSW (Awabakal and Worimi Country). They currently live and work on Dharug and Gadigal Country (Sydney). Dan's debut book of poetry, Secret Third Thing, was released by Cordite in 2023. Dan’s work has been recognised by the Val Vallis Award, Judith Wright Poetry Prize, and XYZ Prize, among others. In their spare time, Dan runs small DIY publisher Subbed In. More of their work can be found at: http://www.2dan2hogan.com/ More by Dan Hogan › Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places. If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate. 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