A View With A View

The Third Relationship

by Charlie Vergara, Technology Coordinator, Bank Street School for Children

“Community walks!”
“Ask our parents!”

Recently, a 6/7s classroom was brainstorming research strategies for understanding the needs of our local community. Notably absent from their list was any mention of the internet or digital devices. Among first graders, this is both an anomaly and a testament to the power of experiential learning at Bank Street. Outside our muraled brick walls, six-year-olds are being taught that Siri, Alexa, and Google have all the answers. But despite the value Bank Street places on real-world experience, technology will become entwined with every aspect of our students’ lives. As a leading progressive institution, we have the responsibility to teach children agency in a world where physical reality is augmented by almost endlessly tentacled algorithms.

Our choices and movements in the digital and physical world are so connected that teaching them as separate spaces would be a disservice to even our younger students. We no longer have a rationale to present technology as simply a utility. It was suspicion of the adequacy of this line of thinking that drew me away from teaching about “digital footprints” and “technology as a tool” and to refocus my work on the underlying structures of our relationship with technology. My belief is that if students understand digital environments, their decisions within these ecosystems will enhance their insights into the nature of the physical world.

I view this approach as the “third relationship.” Digital hardware and communication software are active participants in virtually all our social interactions and personal choices. A text message to a friend is a message to the app as much as it is to the friend. This third participant collects the locations of the sender and receiver, the content of the message, the types of devices being used, and a host of other data, and then auctions off all of this in real time to algorithms in a digital marketplace. Some of the effects of the third relationship are felt almost immediately; for example, when I communicate that Altra makes the best running shoes, boom! Facebook serves us Altra ads. I think we’ve all experienced something like this. 

By design, the more seismic effects of the third relationship are almost imperceptible, being formed from billions of data points and targeting the subconscious. The information derived from one woman’s fitness bracelet, health apps, personal communications, entertainment choices, food purchases, and real-world social and physical activities are contextualized along with her history and that of millions of other women. The resulting analysis is used to create a precisely targeted flow of subconscious messages. For example, biometric data combined with search history and recently ordered meals could show that the targeted user was in a mood conducive to buying high-end shoes. Next, Louboutin buys the ads on the mobile site she’s visiting and Bergdorf sends her a “select customer” sale price on the shoes. The same type of multi-platform targeting could be used for political purposes over the course of days or weeks, first, say, by presenting a collection of stories about violent acts committed by a specific ethnic group. As the intensity of the messaging grows, we are reassured by content from a politician who vows to protect us from the very group we’ve grown to fear. These are simplified examples, but as the strategies of artificial intelligences become increasingly refined, the impact of the content, message sequencing and points of contact work together to contrive a narrative that for most people can be all but indistinguishable from reality. 

Control of a person’s customized information-ecosystem constantly changes hands as it is auctioned off to commercial, political, religious, or ideological customers. The onslaught of invisible influences is in constant transition, as control is seamlessly traded between bidders. So, how do we prepare Bank Street students to have agency and make change as our real-world experiences are being shaped by digital platforms? There are two strategies emerging from our STEAM initiative through which to address the third relationship. The first involves pairing the teaching of concrete technology skills, such as coding and UX, with lessons on how this technology is being employed socially. The second involves reclaiming language; similar to the ways that business speak has distorted such words as “pivot,” social media has seized control over swaths of vocabulary. 

By “lifting the hood” on tools for social engineering, we believe students will be able to critically analyze their choices when using social media. A student might wonder, for example, “Is posting this video on Tik Tok worth it? On the one hand, my video is hilarious, all my friends use Tik Tok, and if other people find it as funny as I do, it may go viral, which would open up interesting opportunities. On the other hand, it might feel really cringy in a few years. Also, posting it to Tik Tok supports a company that removes posts critical of China’s government, suppressing content from people it deems unattractive, and sells my data.” Regardless of students’ ultimate choices, they at least have a critical backdrop for making an informed decision. While many of us who abstain from social media may abhor even engaging with a platform like Tik Tok, advocating abstinence from social media is short sighted. Bank Street has a responsibility to teach students in developmentally-appropriate ways how to understand and leverage power, not run from it.

Reclaiming language is equally important. Twenty years ago, for example, “friend” had a narrower range of meanings, and tone and facial expression could modify and add nuance to those meanings. But in general, friends were real people we cared about. Now, the word is so diluted that a “friend” could be a pixelated Roblox avatar, a Call of Duty teammate we play with and talk to daily but have never met, or a real friend’s “friend” on Facebook whom we met once at a party. Friend now requires a modifier to have its traditional meanings. This creates strong ambiguity, allowing the seemingly innocuous word “friend” to be used as bait by social networks and gaming platforms. Media companies use “friend” to create a superficial yet resonant sense of belonging and connection, to which children are especially vulnerable. 

The challenges outlined above might seem daunting. How can seventy teachers and a few hundred parents get ahead of thousands of brilliant technologists armed with virtually unlimited resources? The answer lies in not viewing this as a zero-sum game, or a threat like climate change that requires a direct, united response. Instead, we must remind ourselves of Claire’s 6/7s, who search the real world for answers and know what it means to be a friend. Our goal in growing our STEAM program is to make sure that these students develop a keen awareness of the digital forces in their lives. A strong technical foundation will help reveal the mechanisms of the third relationship, while deep study of how technology shapes society will reveal the hidden messages threatening to inundate them. As students grow through Bank Street, we must preserve their core humanity and give them the experiences to confidently navigate any form their reality may take.