Who Is Pulling The Muppet Strings?

Sesame Street is an iconic brand that embodies humor, acceptance, and humanity. Who doesn’t love a muppet? So, on December 20 when the MacArthur Foundation announced they were giving Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee $100 million to educate young children from displaced Syrian families and help them deal with “toxic stress,” most people were thrilled. While the optics were great, I’m here to tell you these muppets are definitely not the type of “friends” Syrian refugee children need.

How will Sesame Workshop and the IRC spend the MacArthur award money? Much of it will be spent on educational technology:

  • Sesame-branded educational content delivered on televisions, phones and digital platforms
  • home visits reinforced by digital content and parenting resources provided via mobile devices
  • child development centers equipped with video-clips pre-recorded on projectors and activity sheets

This approach exactly reflects concerns raised by an April 2017 report published by Education International  on the education of Syrian refugee children. The report found that many donors were providing “decontextualized interventions” that focused too much on technology.

A follow-up story by Anya Kamenetz noted that such an approach was highly problematic in settings with limited access to electricity. Ed-tech is not what the schools and teachers needed or wanted, but for every one donor offering to provide a soccer ball, there were ten who wanted to provide tablets and online learning systems. It is rare for funds to be provided for basics like teacher salaries, books, instructional materials, even latrines.

Instead, NGOs and entities like the World Bank and UNESCO have been diverted to pushing digital technology solutions to deliver educational services to refugee children and families.  Financial interests claim digital platforms are a cost-effective way to supplement teachers, but instead children are being subjected to dehumanizing device-based instruction of the type promoted by Bridge International Academies. Such an approach also disregards growing concern about health and mental health risks associated with screen time and children.

Few people are aware of the extent to which Sesame Workshop has embraced educational technology. They created the Joan Ganz Cooney Lab a decade ago to promote digital learning for young children. These efforts are supported by tech companies including Intel, Microsoft, Motorola and Cisco. The Gates Foundation is involved as is the Bezos Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation and social impact bond underwriters like the Pritzker Children’s Initiative. In 2016 Sesame Workshop used proceeds from its sale of Sprout to launch Sesame Ventures with the Collaborative Fund and Reach Capital. They created two venture capital funds that provide technical support and funding to early-stage ed-tech startups aimed at both individual consumers and school districts. Jeffrey Dunn, current president of Sesame Workshop, said in an interview that a typical venture-capital portfolio aims to earn three to five times a return on investment. Dunn notes that Sesame Ventures is also an extension of Sesame Workshop’s past digital and commercial ventures, in which he played a part.

That same year Sesame Workshop also partnered with IBM to develop branded artificial intelligence apps for literacy and social-emotional learning. They will use the Watson AI platform to provide “personalized” learning content based on the data they mine from children’s online interactions.  The apps were piloted in Gwinett County, GA schools. Now, with the MacArthur award, Sesame Workshop and IBM have access to an additional 1.5 million children to refine their digital education “solutions.”

Very disappointed with Grover here:

More data will be uploaded to devices during home visits and in informal learning settings. Who will have access to the data? Could it be used to profile children and families? Surely there will be some who will be hesitant to submit their children for social-emotional screening  by US-affiliated organizations. Might that information identify those families as potential security threats? What happens if they refuse to participate? These are important questions to ask, especially given IBM’s history of business dealings with authoritarian regimes-see Thomas Watson’s medal for service to the Third Reich,  Hollerith cards and the holocaust.

It is important to note that another partner in this project is The Behavioural Insights Team. BIT, also known as the nudge unit, is a social purpose company jointly owned by the UK government (the developer of social impact bonds) and Nesta. The company uses behavioral science and digital platforms to “address social problems” by encouraging people to make “better choices” that make public service delivery more “cost-effective.” Additionally, the IRC is a member of ideas42 based in the United States. They, too are an organization that aims to use behavioral science to create scalable solutions for “social impact.

The device-based education approach Sesame Workshop and the IRC have proposed is about extracting profit and generating data for impact investment and behavior modification.  When “brought to scale,” the digital services will bleed money from world funds earmarked for refugees. They are using muppets as a smokescreen. Their talk of helping children work through trauma, digitally, is disingenuous. If the International Rescue Committee truly cared about the mental health of these children, they could put the $100 million into humane treatment solutions based in human relationships and community.

The 100 and Change award aligns closely with MacArthur’s digital media and learning and impact investment activities. Many of members of the IRC board and overseers are involved in global finance and U.S. foreign policy. Goldman Sachs, J. P. Morgan, the Rockefeller Foundation and numerous venture capital groups are represented.

While the MacArthur competition purportedly aimed to “solve” a critical world problem, its primary function was to promote the profit-taking social impact investment agenda, which has been advanced  by the Rockefeller Foundation over the past decade. MacArthur is both a member and a funder of their Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN). The non-winning proposals were put into a database, a “Solutions Bank,” of potential future investments. It was an 18-month exercise that vastly expanded infrastructure for the impact investment sector.   See Tim Scott’s excellent  piece for a detailed investigation into how philanthropists seed impact investment markets.

Governments all over the world are now adopting policies that employ “innovative finance” to outsource education and other critical public services to private profit-extracting partnerships. These public-private partnerships are often supported by “philanthropic” partners who are now free to make “mission related” for-profit investments.  Enormous and expensive data-collection is linked to their outcomes-based contracts. For more information see this post, Gambling On Our Futures: Big Data, Global Finance and Digital Life. When one hears “pay for success,” “social impact bonds,” and “what works,” realize that this is what is actually meant.

Sesame Workshop’s program with Syrian refugees is an example of how foundations are paving the way for education to be reinvented as an exercise in data-driven, behavior modification. Over the course of this five-year project, traumatized families will be used to refine scaleable online education and behavioral treatment models that generate data and profit for private interests. These efforts will be subsidized by foundations and made possible with assistance from complicit non-profit actors. The products developed from the digital labor of these children will be deployed not only in future “humanitarian” efforts, but also among the growing ranks of children living in poverty in the United States and other countries. The $100 million was not a charitable award; it was a business investment.

These muppets are not our friends. They are merely puppets whose strings are being pulled by predatory impact investors and Silicon Valley executives. This is not a “feel-good” story. The MacArthur Foundation should be ashamed of their treatment of these children and for using plush characters to provide cover for a repugnant agenda.

In this era of US imperialism and late-stage capitalism it seems the monster at the end of this book is in fact the non-profit that opens a door and allows venture capitalists to harm a million and a half vulnerable children. I hope Sesame Workshop will reconsider their direction, disavow their ties to education technology, and instead use MacArthur’s $100 million to provide the non-digital human services Syria’s refugee children so desperately need. I have to believe Jim Henson would want that.


4 thoughts on “Who Is Pulling The Muppet Strings?

  1. amsoconcerned
    Sheila Resseger says:

    Co-opting the world-famous, lovable Muppets and converting them into animated digital images to seduce children into giving up their data for the sake of venture capitalists’ bottom lines is despicable. The reference to IBM and the Nazis is especially chilling to me. I read Edwin Black’s thoroughly researched book “IBM and the Holocaust” that is discussed in the linked article https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2001/04/hitlers-willing-business-partners/303146/. Profit over People. We cannot go through that trauma again–we must not.

    • hhblogangel – Hilton Head Island, South Carolina – I am a writer of online communications and marketing content. My enjoyment comes from making people smile, think, and love life. Environmental concerns are important to me, as is freedom to choose what is right for me, without harming others. I am liberal-minded, but I enjoy hearing all viewpoints as discussed in coherent, informed, and intellectual settings that rely on fact and truth for political debate. If I can bring light wherever there is darkness, through my presence and through my work, then I feel that I have lived rightly.
      hhblogangel says:

      I agree Hensen would have wanted that, too. The whole notion of capitalizing on philanthropic ventures from the very outset, assaults my sensibilities – as naive as that sounds, it still does – but to appropriate children’s imaginations with characters on tablets that will garner profits for corporations later down the road, without the child’s input, even at the very beginning, is unsettling. Merchandising and marketing from movies and serials was always a cautionary tale when it came to moderation, but if we are to really help displaced Syrian refugees, honestly or donate or assist any country in need from a place of truth and integrity, we need to ask them directly what they really need. AND, NOT GIVE THEM THEM WHAT WE THINK WILL MAKE THEM MORE LIKE US, OR WHAT WILL MAKE THEM BUY THINGS FROM US LATER ON. Seriously. That’s really what we should be doing. Give them what they need by asking them what they need first.

  2. Jen says:

    I don’t know why anyone is surprised that Sesame Workshop would push for tech-based learning. It seems like a natural outgrowth of their original format. After all, Sesame Street was originally designed to be an all inclusive televised preschool curriculum for “dissadvantaged” children whose parents couldn’t afford to enroll then in a “real” preschool program.

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