The incident I describe in this post reminded me of an interview I watched several years ago. Erez Tal, an Israeli television host, and the mind behind several successful commercial TV formats was sitting on the interviewee chair. At some point, he revealed the fact that his own daughters get to watch TV only once a week, for 1.5 hours. The mother selected the programs they were allowed to watch. The interviewer, astonished, asked, “the kids of the famous TV host don’t get to watch the programs you produce?!” on which upon Erez requested one of the cameras to close up on his face and replied, “parents, if you are leaving your kids’ education in the hands of commercial TV, you must be out of your minds.”
Becoming five years old is a festive landmark. Off we go on a fun day, grandson and grandma. At five, everything is an adventure: riding a bus, a train, and especially visiting the Israel national museum of science, technology & space.
While purchasing the tickets, I noticed there’s an interactive digital exhibition – ‘Digitali’. This specific grandma, who knows quite a lot about digital, is also pretty concerned with some of the implications. The question is: how do I help my grandchildren know and understand enough, for them to choose how to live digitally?
The approach presented by the museum made me buy the tickets. On paper, it works fine. The kid ran around trying stuff, grandma read the signs and explanations. I realized that parts of the display and some of the activities and their outcomes were influenced by “crowd wisdom” and other calculations and manipulations by algorithms crunching on the data of a lot of people, coming from the www.
Popular activities in this exhibition are digitized versions of “test yourself” questionnaires. Things like “which super-hero are you?” and “cat or dog?” The kid climbed the stools, asked what it was about, got it, I read the questions and answers for him, and he selected his choices with a little finger on the screen. After submitting the answers he received a result.
Between you and me, the questionnaires are pretty shallow. Lots of pseudo-humorous answers produced by not-too-feverish minds of beginner-level joke writers. Add this to the understanding that it’s all influenced by a web mashup, and you’re not supposed to take any of it too seriously.
But the kid saw things quite differently.
After several questionnaires, he climbed down the stool and sat on it. Little arms crossed on his chest, head down, frowning. “What happened?” I asked. “The results are not possible. They have nothing to do with my choices. It’s not me at all.” “How do you know?” I asked. “I know because I have all sorts of dreams and things moving in my head and I think them, and I know that if I think about my things, something related will come out. Not something that isn’t related.”
I held back my smile because although he is so cute, he was very frustrated. “Tell them it’s impossible.” Here, I’m telling you. “I believe that what you thought was not what came out. Otherwise, you would not be angry. But, it will happen to you many more times – your friends and other people will tell you that the right answer is not something you think is related. If you insist, sometimes they will less likely want to be your friends. It’s called ‘peer pressure’ or ‘social pressure’; friends who press until you give up because you do not want to give up a friend. Sometimes they will be right, too. Sometimes not.”
He raised his head and looked at me. “Grandma, I understand what you are telling me.” (Killing me sweetly)
“Has this already happened to you or to a friend in the kindergarten?” “Yes,” he replied. He looked around at the people standing by the screens and games and asked, “Do they know what you said to me?” “If they know that they have in their heads their dreams that they think, then they know; and then, when there is peer pressure they can decide what they want to do.” He looked at them individually, as if trying to feel what each person had in mind.
We continued. I noticed that he was moving away from the screens with the questionnaires, and also from the activities where after one attempt, the connection between what he did and what came out wasn’t clear to him. One digital display radiated on the walls something that looked like a digital nervous system in motion. I did not have time to read what it was because he shot himself away from it. “What happened?” I asked. “It makes me feel bad, it’s not my dream.”
There were also things he liked. The common denominator between them? the connection between what he did and what happened was clear to him. At these stations, he was completely engaged in doing, over and over again. Trying, checking the result, trying again, differently, and learning the possibilities to express those things he has in his head and body.
Then we went to the game room at the bottom of the historic building, and he played with building blocks. For two hours. First, he built a water robot – do not ask me what it is – and then a house with a kitchen, a bed, an armchair, a table, and a pet snake. It took him time to persuade me to stroke the snake. Eventually, I surrendered and stroked it. A little.
The next day I thought about what had happened with the algorithms, the boy and the dreams. And what happened with Grandma. I think that every child should have at least one adult from whom he can get explanations about what is really happening and how it works; so that the child can choose what he wants to do. Otherwise, how does he know if what he has in mind are his own dreams or those of others?
This reminded me also of ‘Thank you at Boulder High’. Kids know until adults and commercial behemoths make them believe they don’t.