Digerati - Chapter 31

Digerati - Chapter 31

Sherry Turkle [10.1.96]

Chapter 31


Sherry Turkle

THE PATTERN-RECOGNIZER (Esther Dyson): Sherry Turkle probably understands better than anyone how people transfer their emotions onto the Net: sometimes they go through the Net to other people, but sometimes they just stop at the Net and start having an emotional involvement with the Net itself. 

Sherry Turkle is a professor of the sociology of science at MIT. She is the author of Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (1995); The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit (1984); and Psychoanalytic Politics: Jacques Lacan and Freud's French Revolution (1978).

When MIT psychologist and sociologist Sherry Turkle was first experimenting with the Internet virtual communities known as MUDs (multiuser domains) she came across a character named Dr. Sherry. This Dr. Sherry had a room set up as an office in the MUD where it was said she interviewed people and handed out questionnaires about the psychology of online life. Turkle was taken aback by this, because Dr. Sherry wasn't her or hers. "It was like someone else had used my name as a trademark to mean 'cybershrink,'" she recalls.

This was what Turkle has called in her work an "evocative" experience, an experience that causes you to think about things in new ways. And it offered particularly rich food for thought for Turkle, who has always been at the forefront in the enterprise of examining our interactions with the machines we create. In her landmark book The Second Self, Sherry looked at the impact of the personal computer on the way we learn and on our psychological makeup. There she focused on the one-on-one of person and machine. In the wake of MUDs and other online virtual communities, she turned her attention to how computer-mediated communication has led to dramatically changing concepts of identity, relationships, and community.

Sherry is "The Cyberanalyst." I met her in the late '80s, when she came to New York from Boston to give a Reality Club talk. Since then, I have seen her mesmerize audiences at PC Forum and TED conferences. Don't misread the MIT affiliation. Sherry is a humanist; her background is both literary and psychoanalytic. I place her in The New York Review of Books crowd. Such is her fate that she wound up on the cover of the April 1996 issue ofWired.

Sherry had a mixed response to the virtual double she encountered in the MUD. She tried to tell herself that having someone create a character by using your name as a trademark was the highest compliment that could be paid in the new virtual world. But she couldn't feel at peace about it, because Dr. Sherry wasn't just a trademark. It was a person, or several persons, talking to people, interacting online.

Then a friend asked her, "What if Dr. Sherry isn't a person at all, but a bot?" A bot is a kind of robot or artificial intelligence that you can build on a MUD to interact with as though it were a person. In other words, Dr. Sherry might be a program, an artificial intelligence. "Faced with the notion of a double that might be a person or might be an artificial intelligence," Sherry says, "I realized that I was in a brave new world. I'm still approached by people on the Net and off who say things like, 'Was it as good for you as for me last night, Dr. Sherry?'"

THE CYBERANALYST (Sherry Turkle): One of the things that interests me is the way experiences on the Internet bring philosophical ideas down to earth. For nearly two decades I have been interested in how people make personal connections with ideas, bring ideas into their daily lives. My particular focus has been on the "appropriation" of ideas about the self. The first time I explored this was when I studied the widespread infatuation with Freudian ideas in France that began during the late '60s.

There was a special drama to this new French rage for things Freudian because for the preceding half century, the relationship of France to psychoanalytic ideas had been overtly hostile. With a few exceptions, French philosophers and psychologists, French psychiatrists, and the French public spurned Freudian ideas. But by the mid-1970s, psychoanalysis, particularly as interpreted by a French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, had become quite the rage. Why were things happening this way? Why was behind this reversal in Freudian fortunes?

I saw it as an intellectual puzzle and I went to France to try to solve it. As I came to see things, the May­June 1968 student-worker uprising, almost universally known in French folklore as "the events," turned out to be an important element of the story. The May events had brought large numbers of people to see the personal as the political. And then when the events were over, there was a kind of void. Lacanian psychoanalysis was highly politicized and had theories that tried to bridge the social and the individual. It provided ways to "think through" the problems that had been raised but not resolved by the May events. When I wrote Psychoanalytic Politics, I was able to track how the psychoanalytic ideas that caught on‹ Lacanian ideas about the interpenetration of identity and language, self and society‹were those that offered concrete images that facilitated this process of "thinking through." These ideas served as almost-tangible "objects to think with."

During my research I developed a method‹how to study ideas in everyday life, ideas as they "hit the street." In this case I was studying psychoanalysis as understood by people who had never been to an analyst or read a word of Freud.

All of this might seem very far from the world of computers, but from the very first days of my joining the MIT faculty in 1976, I was struck by the way computers were carrying new ideas about psychology and philosophy and making them part of everyday understandings. Psychoanalytic ways of seeing the world had been carried by the power of concrete images, and I had thought of them as "objects-to-think-with," but computational ways of seeing the world were actually being carried by concrete objects. I began to look at the way computers were provoking new ways of looking at mind and life and intelligence.

For example, I found that playing with computer objects (including computer toys and games) influenced how children thought about life. Traditionally, children considered the question "What is alive?" by thinking about whether a given object moved "of its own accord," without an outside push or pull. But in the presence of computer objects, children think about the problem of life rather differently. The question becomes not whether objects move of their own accord, but whether they can think of their own accord, whether they are programmed by themselves or by somebody else, whether they know, have intentions, can cheat. Computers changed the terms of the discussion about life. And what is true for children is true for adults, although it takes different forms. In The Second Self, I wrote about how, in the presence of programmed computers, adults focused on people's spontaneity and lack of "programming" as central to what made them special, and they looked to evolution as central to life. But today, in the presence of computers that in some significant ways do evolve, people are not so sure. The ground is shifting.

The question of how we talk about being alive is a good example of a fundamental philosophical problem being brought down to earth by the presence of the computer. There are others, too, including what is special about people. Twenty years ago, the idea of talking to a computer in the role of a psychotherapist about private, even intimate matters struck most people as very disturbing. They felt that such conversations with a machine were not appropriate. I find that today the most common response to the idea of a conversation with a computer psychotherapist is, "Let me try out your program. It can't hurt. Maybe it'll help me." I call this attitude a new pragmatism. People take the idea of some sort of computer intelligence as a fact of life. What needs to be worked out is the details of how to relate to the new entities. The new pragmatism poses the question, "What are the things that we are willing to render unto the computer as its appropriate domains?" Our sense of what's appropriate in our relationships with computers versus those with people is eroding.

For many years as I looked at the computer as an object that provokes new thinking, I concentrated on the stand-alone machine and what it evoked as a person related to it one-on-one, person-to-computer. But by the late '80s, it was becoming clear to me that experiences on the Internet, where people relate not to the computer but to each other through the computer were becoming central to the story of how computers are changing the ways that we think. Experiences on the Internet are bringing a whole new set of ideas "down to earth." This became a central theme of my most recent book, Life on the Screen.

For example, while living in France in the 1960s, I had my first exposure to ideas that stressed that the self is constituted by and through language, that there is no simple, centralized unitary ego, that each of us is a multiplicity of parts, fragments, and desiring connections. Sometimes I jokingly refer to such slogans as my "French lessons." I had some intellectual appreciation for what this way of looking at things was about, but my understanding was pretty abstract. This disjuncture between theory and lived experience has always been one of the main reasons why multiple and decentered theories have been slow to catch on‹or when they do, why we tend to settle back quickly into older, centralized ways of looking at things.

But many of these same ideas no longer seem abstract or esoteric when you immerse yourself in life on the Internet. For example, the idea that you are constituted by and through language is not an abstract idea if you're confronted with the necessity of creating a character in a MUD. You just have to do it. Your words are your deeds, your words are your body. And you feel these word-deeds and this word-body quite viscerally. Similarly, the idea of multiplicity as a way of thinking about identity is concretized when someone gets an Internet account, is asked to name five "handles" or nicknames for his activities on the system, and finds himself "being" Armani-boy in some online discussions, but Motorcycle-man, Too-serious, Aquinas, and Lipstick in others. In Life on the Screen, I argue that just as the events of May­June 1968 in France brought Lacanian and Freudian ideas about politics and the personal down to earth, experiences on the Internet are concretizing a set of ideas about the power of language and the decentralization of the self.

It is important that questions about the psychology of the Internet not be taken in isolation from the way in which our psychological culture is more broadly rethinking the notion of identity. There is a movement within psychology to redefine healthy identity not in terms of a core identity, of a one, of the integration of self into a one, but as someone who is with the many aspects of self, the many roles that we all play. We no longer talk so much in terms of integrating these roles as of being able to make smooth transitions and having easy and fluid access to all aspects of self. This is a new kind of language. A language of nonpathological multiplicity. On the Internet, people are cycling through many aspects of self as they cycle from window to window. They play somewhat different aspects in different online environments, they present themselves in rather different ways. Of course, this is true of many people's daily life. But the Internet is bringing it home, and in a surprising twist, it is life on the screen that is concretizing the phenomenon, bringing it "down to earth."

We increasingly live in a world where you wake up as a lover, have breakfast as a mother, and drive to work as a lawyer. In the course of a day people go through dramatic transitions and it's apparent to them that they play multiple roles. Well-functioning people, successful people, happy people, have learned to work through all these roles, to cycle through them in productive and joyful ways. On the Internet you can see yourself functioning with seven windows open on your screen, literally assuming different personae in each of those seven windows, having all kinds of relationships, cycling among and being present to, all of these roles simultaneously, having pieces of yourself left in these different windows as programs that you've written which represent you while you attend to another window. Your identity is a distributed presence across a series of windows. Increasingly, life on the screen offers a window onto how we are in our lives off the screen as well: we are people who cycle through aspects of self. But of course, life on the screen takes that quality of "cycling through" and raises it to a higher power. I think that this is one of the most compelling things about online life: it is so different, but in some profound way we recognize it.

We're too far along in the game to characterize people who live much of their day in this way as aberrant or unhealthy. We are going to work in offices that exist both virtually and physically; we are going to have ongoing relationships that are in both realms. Using the metaphor of cycling through windows to think about the self can no longer be seen as a way of talking that is reserved for "nerds" or "techie types" or "MIT-niks."

People's concerns about online life‹that people will lose themselves there, and in particular, that kids spend too much time there‹mirror concerns about videogames of a decade ago. In my opinion, the two phenomena have a lot in common. At the beginning of adolescence, young people have always been confronted with an overwhelming set of new circumstances. There's a new body, new social demands, new peer pressures, new relationships to forge with parents. At this point, with all of this going on, young people have traditionally sought a safe place where they could have a sense of total mastery and a place where they could experiment in relatively consequence-free ways. Our culture presently offers precious few such spaces. Life in the world of a videogame or in the confines of online life are such spaces. So computer experiences‹to the extent that they offer not just feelings of mastery but the kind of world in which people feel contained and safe‹was made for that moment in the developmental cycle. There's no question that when young people find gratification and containment and a safe place to experiment in computational experiences, they may look "addicted." But if the parenting has been good, if they have confidence and self esteem, and good feelings about their physical body, they are able to move beyond the place of safe mastery. They move beyond videogames to the world of people in which nothing is ever black and white, in which everything is a shade of gray. And now, when it is online life that offers safe places, they start to move from online to offline experiences. They learn to use what they have learned online to make better relationships offline.

Of course, the need for a safe space, the need for a "moratorium" where you can try new things out and work through troubling issues does not end with adolescence. We revisit the issues of identity over and over in the course of adult life. In my view, cyberspace is one of the key places where these issues are being played out. It is a big part of what makes the Internet so compelling.

In the years when I was studying how personal computers carry philosophy into everyday life, the ideas that the computer carried were about the mind as machine; today, when my focus is the Internet, the ideas that computer-mediated experiences carry tend to be about notions of identity as multiplicity and of society as a web. But of course, new ways of thinking about such matters do not come to us quickly. These changes take time, proceed with fits and starts. Indeed, I think that we live in a time where we stand betwixt and between the worlds of the modern and postmodern, the mechanical and post-mechanical. Anthropologists call such betwixt-and-between times "liminal." We must learn to live in such times, to embrace the process of rethinking that they engender. It is not productive to yearn for a romanticized past or to glamorize a "future-perfect."

When a new technology is powerful enough, it causes a period of disruption, when a log of things are up for grabs. For example, with the explosion of online life, we see people preoccupied about how we should think about identity, authenticity, and physical presence. Some people start to talk as though we are already in some idealized digital future, while others fear that we are being "sucked into" virtual reality. The former group tends to devalue the past; the latter group tends to wax nostalgic about a golden age that never was‹when people were completely "present" to each other in direct, transparent communities. Between the hype and the fears, between people saying we're already in the future and people longing for the past, I believe that we are missing something really splendid about where we actually are. We're in a moment of creative upset. People who spend time in cyberspace environments where they create avatars who have a "physical" presence experience their bodies in both of these realms. People who have significant relationships "through" their avatars experience their identities in new and complex ways. We are rethinking the notion of what is real.

One of the things that seems most clear to me is that we are not being sucked into the virtual and we are not going to live completely in the physical. We are going to learn to live between two worlds. Already we see that once people meet virtually, they want to meet in the physical real. Communities that begin in cyberspace start to grow in other places as well. And people who are "offline" friends do more and more of their socializing online. It goes in both directions and this is how it should be. The challenge is to build a life that embraces all of the possibilities for relating to each other. These are very early days, and we are going to see more and more permeability between the real and the virtual and much less a sense of a boundary between where the physical real ends and the virtual begins.

One important lesson in all of this is to remind us that people construct the meaning of our technologies. These meanings are not inherent in the technologies themselves. For example, when I first lived in Paris in the late 1960s, I lived with a French family that had just gotten a telephone. The telephone was considered an alien and alienating intruder. They saw its use as essentially for medical emergencies. Its technological mediation was experienced as cold and impersonal. Yet another kind of technological mediation was considered intimate. Important communications, significant communications were conveyed by what was known as the pneumatique.

When you sent a pneumatique, you wrote a letter and brought it to the post office. There, a postal worker put it into a system of hydraulically powered underground tubes that wove through Paris. The letter came out at the post office in the quarter of Paris where the person destined to receive the letter lived. And then, another postal worker hand-delivered the letter. For me, recollections of the pneumatique serve as a reminder that whether a means of communication seems intimate or alienating depends not only on what is intrinsic to the object, but on the social construction of that object. And at the same time, I think that the pneumatique has lessons to teach us about what is so compelling about our digital communications. The pneumatique, so tied up with hydraulics, with underground pipes and clunky valves, has a kinship with digital communications.

The pneumatique took its emotional power not only from how quickly it could be sent and received but from the way it communicated a feeling of intimate, hand-to-hand access. There was a sense of a direct connection between the hand that made physical strokes on a piece of paper, the hand that brought it to the post office, the hand that brought it to its destination, and the hand that received it. With email, we are getting back into a means of communication where, although no physically bodies touch, we have the immediacy and the urgency of the pneumatique.

With email, we allow ourselves to speak more informally, we respond quickly, it is a medium, like the pneumatique that is experienced as standing between a letter and a conversation. All kinds of new things are possible. At MIT, most of my students are away from home for the first time. They're very anxious to separate from their parents and to show their independence. One student described how he was studying for a test very late at night, and his mother, who had just gotten an account with America Online, sent him an email, the first she had ever composed. He wrote her an email in return, telling her that she had done it right and mentioning that he was going to be up all night studying. She, having insomnia, was further experimenting with AOL at four o'clock in the morning and saw that he had responded to her mail. She typed back a note in reply. He was still up studying, so he sent another message. And so, they had a back-and-forth email correspondence-cum-conversation about the pressures of being at MIT and about his anxieties his first college examination. It was a conversation they never would have had without email. This son would not have found it appropriate to place a telephone call to his mother to discuss his plans to "pull an all-nighter" at MIT or to talk about how frightened he was. Yet with email, all this was possible. It enabled them to be close; the mother felt connected and the son felt comforted. New technologies are rich with possibilities. Our job is to use our self understanding to exploit them in the way that most enhances our lives.

THE COYOTE (John Perry Barlow): Sherry is an academic who has a strong background in rigorous sociological investigation. The methods of traditional academic sociology are going to be critical in maintaining a continuity from the old understandings to the new understandings. She's the only other person I've run across who is thinking about what may end up being the central issue of cyberspace: What is the self? 

THE CITIZEN (Howard Rheingold): One of the very few people who has actually done long-term research into what computers seem to be doing to our minds.

THE SEER (David Bunnell): Although I like her ideas, I don't have time to read the books she writes. I wonder about the people who do.

THE GENIUS (W. Daniel Hillis): Sherry is really interesting. If you describe to me what she does, I wouldn't guess that I would like it, but I find her books fascinating to read. She reflects back what we're doing and shows it to us in a different light; often from the psychoanalytical angle, and sometimes with a psychoanalytical French accent.

THE MARKETER (Ted Leonsis): I fell in love with Sherry Turkle on the big screen at the TED conference. Her books are right down the strike zone on what we've been talking about: this new kind of identity that you create, the cyber-personality. I encourage anybody who's going to program and try and make a business in the consumer arena to read her books, because she's got her finger on the pulse of what people do, as opposed to what they say they do, online.

THE IMPRESARIO (Richard Saul Wurman): Sherry has brought personification into electronic communication. Much as Lou Kahn asked a building or a brick what it wants to be, she is asking seemingly simple-minded but prophetic questions of electronic communications‹what it wants to be.

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Excerpted from Digerati: Encounters with the Cyber Elite by John Brockman (HardWired Books, 1996) . Copyright © 1996 by John Brockman. All rights reserved.