The Toy Story’s fear of the Purefold

I’ve been chatting to David and Tom at ag8 about the project that would become Purefold (a further, excellent summary here) since last year, so it’s fantastic to see it finally hitting the public domain; and very exciting that it’s getting such a positive reaction.

However, I’m not how much what’s truly revolutionary about it has really been picked up. In fact, even though I’ve known about it for a while, I didn’t really understand just what is so disruptive about it until – oddly enough – I got sucked into ‘Toy Story’ the other day.

I did rather enjoy getting absorbed in it; it’s a very charming, beautifully put together film. But, as I watched it again for the first time in years, I was more and more surprised by the extent to which, beneath the charm, it dramatises a certain kind of fear of the remix culture that Purefold so strongly endorses.

What struck me first of all was my unexpected sympathy for Sid, the evil boy next door. He’s presented as an all round toy nemesis, a very clearly defined villain; but the more I watched him in action, the more I realised that his ostensibly destructive play is in fact highly creative – particularly when compared to that of Andy, the ‘good’ boy.

When Andy plays, he stays entirely within the pre-created narratives that come packaged with his toys. In fact, the film defines his relationship with his toys in such commercial terms that his shift of allegiance from Woody to Buzz is signalled by the appearance of Buzz Lightyear merchandise (a duvet, posters, and so on) all over his room. Andy hasn’t made a new friend; he’s brought, very uncritically, into a new franchise.

Sid, by contrast, is a natural hacker. He refuses to accept any sort of pre-defined narratives, instead fitting toys into his own, completely unrestrained imaginative world. For Sid, bolting a Pterodactyl’s head onto the body of a doll in order to heal it makes perfect imaginative sense; and in fact, as he does so, we see that his commitment to the craft of toy hacking is such that he has a full set of remodelling tools in his bedroom.

And the Pterodacdoll is only one example of Sid’s creativity. The creatures that live around his room (a robot spider supporting a shaven doll’s head, a pair of legs that animate a fishing rod, a walking car, and so on) are equally striking, equally surreal. Where Andy’s imaginative world is defined (and limited) by preset narrative franchises, Sid is a kind of pre-pubescent cross between Max Ernst and W. Heath Robinson.

But, without exception, his ferocious imaginative drive is presented as a destructive force. The toys are terrified of Sid; he’s constantly upsetting his sister; he’s a major threat to Woody and Buzz; and all of this builds to one of the film’s key climactic moments, which comes when the toys defeat him.

Woody’s speech to Sid at this moment is worth quoting in full. Coming to life in Sid’s hand, Woody says (unsurprisingly, in a very menacing way): ‘We don’t like being blown up, Sid, or smashed up, or ripped apart… Take good care of your toys – because, if you don’t, we’ll find out, Sid. We toys see everything. So PLAY NICE!’ (my punctuation).

In effect, what Sid is being told is ‘Don’t redefine your toys’ – don’t hack them, don’t remix them according to your own imaginative or creative needs. In this context, ‘PLAY NICE’ means ‘Play within the pre-determined parameters of your toys’ – or, more precisely, ‘never replace the story we sold you with the stories you can make for yourself’. And that’s the point at which the film’s fear of remix culture is most evident.

Of course, you might think I’m reading too much into the film; that I’m finding a conservative subtext where none exists, or that I’m overstating the extent to which rights holders seek to protect their properties by preventing them from being remixed. But in fact this kind of mashphobia is very real, and very pervasive.

Don’t believe me? Check out Lawrence Lessig’s opus ‘Free Culture’, or Cory Doctorow’s more recent book ‘Content’. Both are available for free download from these links, and both are very absorbing reads. Or, you can watch Lawrence talk here:

Or just take a wander round the internet; whether it’s Sony protecting AIBO code, publishers battling with Harry Potter fan-fic writers, Fox preventing The Simpsons from appearing for a couple of seconds in the background in a documentary about staging Wagner, or Warner Bros issuing cease and desist orders protesting fair use of its musical properties, fear of the remix is everywhere.

But Purefold content contains and endorses no such fear. All Purefold content is going to be issued under the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0 license, in effect allowing anyone to do anything they want with it, as long as they properly attribute Purefold content and release their new creations under a similar virus.

That means that Purefold is encouraging us to all become Sids; to become people who take what’s out there, whether professionally created or otherwise, and then repurpose it according to our own creative needs and drives.

It’s the anti-Toy Story; and, in thus being, it shows that it understands the form and function of the new world of media that digital culture has enabled far more than the Pixars and the Foxes of this world, and is willing to engage with that world in a way that’s at once entirely disruptive, and entirely democratic.

3 thoughts on “The Toy Story’s fear of the Purefold

  1. That’s a really great post, thanks Al. Definitely one of the better ones I’ve seen for a while, brilliant look into Toy Story.

    Don’t worry about seeing too much into it, doesn’t matter. After all, you’re just hacking Toy Story and reinterpreting it in a new light that allows a different view of storytelling / narrative / copyrights / etc.


  2. Hi Tom – that’s magnificent! Off to build one now… I wonder if the best toy analogy for Purefold is Lego, except it’s as easy to create your own blocks as use the ones they give you?

    A pleasure, Willem – and a very good point! Interesting to think that any act of criticism is actually an act of hacking; reworking the text to become part of a new argument about its meaning. Hmm…

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