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Why Sesame Street’s Apple Spinoff ‘The Helpsters’ Is So Horrifying

Teaching kids about technology is fine. But this is just creepy.

Apple

Sesame Street has always been good at representation. From vampires to people who live in trash cans, the street has it all. And now, in partnership with Apple, Sesame Workshop is extending its representation to Cupertino by introducing preschoolers to a sociopathic tech recruiter muppet desperate for young coding talent. It might sound like a mash-up between a Black Mirror episode and an Onion headline, but it’s real: A new Sesame Street TV show — called The Helpsters — is designed to teach small children rudimentary computer code, and is being produced by Apple. This, Apple thinks, is a good thing.

During Tuesday’s Apple keynote, the house that Jobs built unveiled plans for numerous new media products, including the streaming service Apple+. Instead of just producing screens for shows, Apple is going to be producing the content itself. This is where Big Bird goes corporate. As part of its new expansion, Apple TV will air The Helpsters, a Sesame Street-spin off about computer coding for preschoolers.

No, you’re not confused. This isn’t ironic viral marketing for Jordan Peele’s new Twilight Zone reboot. There really is a new muppet named “Cody” who is here to help kids learn the basics of coding.

Just to be clear, Cody will not be part of the regular Sesame Street world, but he is a Sesame Workshop product — albeit one with Peter Thiel on speed dial. This something Cody actually said during the presentation: “By teaching preschoolers about coding, we’re giving them the opportunity to change the world!”

Is this true? STEM learning is good, right? No and… kinda? 

There’s nothing wrong about teaching kids how to communicate with computers. But preschoolers? From a developmental point of view, most experts agree very young children should be working on figuring out how to share their toys, not thinking about how to program them. Wrestling with causal relationships can be healthy, but the notion that this will set kids on a path towards future employment or fluency with technology is ridiculous. Kids achieve those things in the context of educational environments that necessitate soft skills. Those are the skills Sesame Street and its characters have always excelled at teaching. 

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Could teaching preschoolers coding be a good thing for some kids? Maybe. But operating under the assumption that this kind of education is good for all kids is a huge generalization at best and disgusting at worst. 

Cody promised the show will feature “funky dance moves,” which is great, but a show about innovation for kids too young to understand the status quo makes minimal sense. It is, at best, bullshit. At worst, it pushes a corporatist agenda and uses the ultimate anti-corporate crusaders (Muppets!) to do it. This feels very much like Apple using its fuck-you money to communicate with parents. And it misunderstands how muppets work. Oscar the Grouch isn’t teaching kids how to dumpster dive and The Count isn’t just teaching kids to count. These characters are defined by their emotions. Oscar is a grouch. The Count loves counting. It fulfills him. What defines Cody? His equity shares? His Tesla? His personal relationship with Elizabeth Holmes?

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Part of the reason why Apple wanted this program to be connected to Sesame Street is that it’s a trusted children’s brand. Tech companies don’t have much truck with parents. Look at YouTube. But what does Sesame Workshop get out of this? Money, to be sure, but also a sociopath at the block party. Perhaps that makes the world these mini-muppets live in more realistic, but it also makes it way sadder.

In the first line of his 1984 cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer, William Gibson wrote: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” If The Helpsters needs a new opening theme song, about the weather, it seems like this is obviously the first line.