Mobile Tech, Sesame Street, and Interaction vs. Inaction

“Sesame Street,” since its inception, has been plagued by the same internal, ontological contradictions that now face every designer of mobile education apps.

Wait. I’m going to back up and explain the most ludicrous-sounding, pretentious sentence I’ve ever written – and there have been a lot – in a second. To be clear, like virtually everyone else in America, I grew up with “Sesame Street” and love it deeply. It is a national treasure, one of the most important TV shows of all time, and a huge force for good. Its immediate lessons – number, letters, morals – are important to every developing mind, but even more important was its vision of gentle integration.

Sesame Street
This article will pause while the author overcomes a crippling bout of nostalgia.

This seems a given now, but in the 70s and even the 80s it was still more of a pipe dream than a reality (I grew up in Chicago in the 80s, where the election of the first African-American mayor brought hate bubbling up from the sewers and damn near tore the city apart). It may be overstating the case a bit to say that “Sesame Street” solved everything, but there isn’t any doubt that kids who grew up watching it cared far less about a person’s race in terms of jobs, friendship, or romance than any generation in the past.

So those are all unalloyed good things. And yet there was that contradiction. “Sesame Street” was about friendship and community, and yet it came to us in a medium that encouraged passivity and solitude. Television broadcasts to us and we receive. You couldn’t get the lessons of “Sesame Street” without being parked on the couch. To hear what it taught about the importance of play and imagination, you had to be doing the opposite.

Bringing the Street onto the streets

This all comes up because “Sesame Street,” that vision of a decent future somehow forever dust-bound in memory’s attic, has entered the mobile age. It has started to produce 30-minute episodes, in consideration of short attention spans and the competition of a million other things to do. In conjunction with this, it has plans to air full 30-minutes episodes online, with the ability to stream them on a PBS app, as well as Roku.  

This is a big deal. It means that you don’t have to be in front of a TV to watch “Sesame Street.” You can be on an airplane or in the car or in a park. Wherever you go, there it is. It will help PBS to reach out to new generations, who may become unweaned from the television, from the hidebound ways of watching a certain show at a certain time, from having to be in one location in order to see their favorites. We’re all consuming TV differently, but there are kids growing up who will have no idea how strange it is to be able to watch what you want when you want it, and marvel at us who still instinctively think we have to rush home to catch the beginning of Mad Men even though we know we’re recording it. Anything that keeps “Sesame Street” going, especially when it has become politically viable to cut the meager funding PBS receives, is a good thing.

Does mobile tech solve the contradictions of educational entertainment?

And yet, you could argue that this is just another permutation of the contradiction. Sure, you can now put on “Sesame Street” while you’re at the park, but doesn’t that take away from playing? Isn’t the child still staring at a screen, just a smaller one? Isn’t it still passive?

Yes and no. The show itself is still passive, inasmuch as a show that encourages you to sing and play along can be (it isn’t a toy commercial like so much other kids’ entertainment), but PBS is more clever than that. They also released last year a series of location-based apps that give you real-world games to play, like SuperMarketLetter, encouraging kids at the store with their parents to try to shop alphabetically.

This is ingenious, and shows the nearly unlimited power of mobile technology. All apps, even educational ones, had a flaw in that they at least briefly discouraged interaction with the real world, creating essentially a bifurcated sense of reality. There was the world on the screen and the one buzzing and breathing and running and crashing and dreaming and dying all around you. That’s a slight exaggeration, but it seemed the quintessential image of our time would be a group of people reading on their tablets about a fire while it burned down the building they were in.

That was the beginning, though, as technology found its footing. Now it makes more of an effort to integrate itself into the real world, to become a part of our shared experience, and not a buffer between. The “Sesame Street” apps are a perfect example of that. They use the portability (or, I guess, mobility) of mobile devices as a way to bring their message wherever you go. They make learning about and involving yourself in the tactile world an extension of the digital world we’re creating. In a way, it is a gentle singularity.

So, they’ve done it again. They taught generations how to count, how to share, how to make friends with anyone, and how to say goodbye. And now they’ll help to erase that line between entertainment and education, and the divide between our devices and the world in which, as a huge bird and a cookie-loving blob and the most wonderful people you’ll ever see remind us, we vitally need to live.

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