For some, the Elf on the Shelf doll, with its doe-eyed gaze and cherubic face, has become a whimsical holiday tradition — one that helpfully reminds children to stay out of trouble in the lead-up to Christmas.
For others — like, say, digital technology professor Laura Pinto — the Elf on the Shelf is “a capillary form of power that normalizes the voluntary surrender of privacy, teaching young people to blindly accept panoptic surveillance and” [deep breath] “reify hegemonic power.”
The latter perspective is detailed in “Who’s the Boss,” a paper published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, in which Pinto and co-author Selena Nemorin argue that the popular seasonal doll is preparing a generation of children to uncritically accept “increasingly intrusive (albeit whimsically packaged) modes of surveillance.”
Before you burst out laughing, know that Pinto comes across as extremely friendly and not at all paranoid on the phone. She’s also completely serious.
“The Elf on the Shelf” is both a book and a doll. The former is a soft pixie scout elf that parents are instructed to hide around the house. The accompanying book, written in rhyme, tells a Christmas-themed story that explains how Santa Claus keeps tabs on who is naughty and who is nice.
The book describes elves hiding in children’s homes each day during the holidays to monitor their behavior before returning to the North Pole each night with a report for “the boss.”
Because we live in a world grappling with corporate smartphone surveillance, behavior management apps in the classroom and private communication interceptions by various governments, Pinto — a digital technology professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology — sees the Elf on the Shelf dolls as one development among many threatening our collective definition of privacy.
If she’s right, in all likelihood she’s fighting a losing battle. The Elf on the Shelf book sold over 6 million copies and joined the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade last year, according to the Daily Mail.
“I don’t think the elf is a conspiracy and I realize we’re talking about a toy,” Pinto told The 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.”