Thursday, May 18, 2017

On Fidget Spinners

There is, in my experience, a perpetual quest during childhood to discover things with which one can mess. Some of these are found objects. Others were marketed to children.  An exhaustive list would be impossible, but items I've played dexterity games with over my lifetime include:

Yard sticks
Rubber bands
Paper plates

So it came as something of a surprise to me that cultural critics have been especially harsh on the most recent fad, the fidget spinner (for the origin story, read here). My kids are into it right now, just like they were into bottle flipping a few months ago. These crazes go through the schools, passing like memes or viruses. 

Here's the most hilarious quote:
A top is a toy requiring collaboration with the material world. It requires a substrate on which to spin, be it the hard earth of ancient Iraq or the molded-plastic IKEA table in a modern flat. As a toy, the top grounds physics, like a lightning rod grounds electricity. And in this collaboration, the material world always wins. Eventually, the top falls, succumbing to gravity, laying prone on the dirt… Not so, the fidget spinner. It is a toy for the hand alone—for the individual. Ours is not an era characterized by collaboration between humans and earth—or Earth, for that matter. Whether through libertarian self-reliance or autarchic writ, human effort is first seen as individual effort—especially in the West. Bootstraps-thinking pervades the upper echelons of contemporary American life, from Silicon Valley to the White House. … The fidget spinner quietly attests that the solitary, individual body who spins it is sufficient to hold a universe. That’s not a counterpoint to the ideology of the smartphone, but an affirmation of that device’s worldview. What is real, and good, and interesting is what can be contained and manipulated in the hand, directly.
Perhaps Ian has forgotten his childhood altogether, but I haven't. And we played with lots of toys you manipulated without allowing them to touch the ground. Like the Whee-lo.

Bogost fails to notice that children trade toys, and share them, toss them around, discuss them. In this way the fidget spinner is quite the opposite of an individualistic toy. It's popular because kids talk about it with each other, and share them. [they also drop them, frequently, so they do in fact touch the earth.]

If nothing else, Bogost's theorizing here gives cultural criticism a bad name. It's embarrassing. If anything, the self-congratulatory level of this rhetoric is solitary, so sufficient in the universe it doesn't even need to take account of the actual fidget spinner and the playful children who play with them.

Bogost also gets the economics of the fidget spinner wrong. He blames them as an example of the get-rich culture of late capitalism, but oddly enough, the fidget spinner is that phenomenon that is truly distributed, no one brand, no special inventor. Everybody is making them. Everybody is playing with them. You can even 3-D print them yourself.'

Finally, Bogost seems completely insensitive to the needs of those with disabilities. Denigrating fidget toys will likely lead to their banning, and banning fidget toys actively harms kids with disabilities.

Certain dexterity toys have been especially memorable in my own life, and I recommend instead of reading much criticism about them, you might just want to play with them a bit. Favorites include the Whee-lo (already mentioned), the Kendama (see below), and the Yo-Yo. There are dozens more, both retro and modern. All of them basically do the same thing: they allow you to practice dexterity skills within certain constraints.
The Whee-lo -or- Magnet Space Wheel

In general, I agree with Nathan Robinson, who writes in defense of liking things. Sometimes it's just fun to like things. It's okay to just play, and inevitably in a culture that communicates in large groups (as children on the playground do), fads will develop.

This week it will be fidget spinners. Next week they'll be back to Pokemon. Sometimes, the adults will get in on the game. For my money, just writing this blog post has me inspired to get back into juggling fire, or playing with my diablo.

A Victorian mother and child playing with a diablo

1 comment:

  1. my son has one of these fidget spinners, his teacher also has one, She is using it as a tool to help learn in class. He bought it from