Life on the Screen

Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, Sherry Turkle, 1995

Again, something I wrote a while back... Sherry Turkle's book about internet, postmodern philosophy and psychology remains interesting even though many of her examples sound rather dated today (1995 being something like the Triassic Period of the internet). See also some great reviews at Amazon, and Marshall Soules' collection of links about Sherry Turkle.

In “Life on the Screen” Sherry Turkle explores the many ways in which our sense of self, life, reality and society have changed with the rise of the internet and postmodern culture. She presents changes in attitudes and methods in areas ranging from computer programming and artificial intelligence to biology, psychology and language. As her focus is on the reciprocal effects of technology and society, she never presents a deterministic model, at one point specifically exploring all possible permutations of cause and effect between our technology (computers), the times we live in, and ourselves.
Throughout the book, Sherry Turkle explores how the development of computers and the internet was paralleled by changes of how we define life and intelligence. (Sherry Turkle’s interviews with young children facing this question for the first time in their development are particularly evocative.) Language was always a catalyst for these changes. Speaking of machines in terms of intelligence, thought, life and growth provoked strong reactions. As long as ideas about machines were not culturally appropriated as objects-to-think-with about living beings, the comparisons usually inspired a defensive stance and definitions of humans centered on emotions, and later physicality. As work on artificial intelligence and artificial life progressed, these definitions were highly threatened. Yet, the resistance lessened. New programming models were readily used as metaphors for evolution, growth and brain functions. As the metaphors became more familiar, they were no longer declared as such – the quotation marks around them were dropped – and it became normal to think of machines as intelligent, programs as evolving, or brains as networks. In such an environment, people even became willing to give computer-based psychoanalysis a try. Sherry Turkle provides many such examples of individual experience, technological progress and social trends to create a sense of their complex, simultaneous developments and interaction.

A central theme of the book is the “pastiche” of post-modern society and “tinkering” as the method suitable to working in it. This represents a move away from the modernist belief that our world can and should be explained in linear, rational, all-encompassing models, and a move away from the dominance of the plan. In contrast, society and the world are defined by their complexity and should be accepted as such. Understanding is reached by arranging thoughts, objects and information, and exploring the patterns and links which emerge as the original arrangement is changed and adapted. Infinite regress and circular reasoning are seen as useful tools rather than as flawed logic. When this iterative process of interaction is applied to computer programming, an artificial intelligence program may not only surpass its creator in skill (e.g. win at chess), but deliver surprising, unexpected outcomes. At the same time, the idea of a machine as a complex network of interacting parts, that allows for random variables and doesn’t require total understanding to function, has allowed us to accept such outcomes. We feel more comfortable with a machine modeled on the human brain achieving near-human effects, than if a completely rational, explainable machine achieves the same. Sherry Turkle shows how changes in psychological methods, computer-user interfaces, programming techniques, biology research and people’s experience with the internet contributed to “bringing post-modern philosophy down to earth”.

Another effect of the shift towards pastiche and tinkering is the dissolution of authoritative rules, methods or forms: Anything goes – all of it simultaneously. Different rules, conventions and morals co-exist, forcing each individual to engage in a “continuous deconstruction and reconstruction of the self”, choosing who to be and how to relate to a constantly changing perception of the world. Using the anonymity of the internet and windows-styled personal computers, more and more people are not just de- and reconstructing one self, but multiple personae. In online games and chats they can present themselves in any way they want. They can change their gender, appearance, interests, personality, opinions and more – and they can do this as many times as they like to create multiple selves who can engage in virtual society simultaneously. At best, people use their virtual personae to explore and expand the range of their own personalities; at worst, they will reinforce self-destructive behavior. In exploring psychological dimensions Sherry Turkle presents the idea that people can achieve a “moratorium”, a safe place for personal reflection and experimentation, in their online characters. Much like the ability to write allowed mankind to compare and analyze different versions of a story, multiple personae may allow a reflection on different aspects of one’s personality – fermenting an inner dialogue on identity. In a more pessimistic sense, the phenomenon of fragmentation so widely present in post-modern culture is particularly frightening in the context of multiple-personality disorders.

Sherry Turkle places a special emphasis in her book on the MUDs (rule-based role-playing games in virtual worlds) and the way people use and experience them for everything from relaxation or escapism to social networking and personality development. Her many examples show a highly individual approach. While this emphasis is at times irritating – there is so much else going on in the internet, which she only touches on – she is certainly right in viewing MUDs as a type of virtual frontier that of users are playfully exploring and creating. Also, MUDs are a part of programmer culture and thus very influential in other “more serious” developments of the virtual world. In MUDs as virtual societies, our cultural norms are being renegotiated: Many MUDs have virtual governments and economies which are developed and also challenged by its virtual inhabitants. New values are formed: Power is a function of playing and programming skill; ownership must be redefined; in open-ended games playing and creating becomes more important than winning. Throughout the game, players must agree on acceptable norms of virtual behavior, the accountability of real, anonymous people for digression from these norms, and most of all: How real is this virtual world? If killing is an essential feature of many adventure MUDs, does this mean rape is acceptable in the game? As MUDs fulfill more and more social functions, how real is the game becoming?

While civic discourse thrives in virtual environments, it seems to be disappearing from ordinary real life. Is real life not worth it? Or not vivid enough to merit attention? Experiencing the world through our screens, our sense of reality is distorted. Life can be boring, ordinary and slow; it depends less on our projections and imaginations. The more we model our physical world to resemble its simulations, the more consumerist and disappointing it becomes (e.g. in changing from town center to mall center). The reader experiences a shift from the traditional dichotomy of real and virtual to a continuum ranging from make-believe, to social engagement in a virtual environment, to relationships that shift between the real and the virtual, and finally to the world of physical objects. The extremes of this continuum are not clear: Real people shape the virtual world and the machines where it takes place; hardly any aspect of our “real” lives is unaffected by the internet.

As the boundary between real and virtual is blurred, as social norms lose their importance, as traditional social groups disintegrate, as people change their personae like their clothes, we no longer know what to rely on. We are also overwhelmed by complexity, and in true post-modern spirit, we begin to take things at face value – or rather at interface value. We forget that an icon on a screen is just a graphic representation or that a page on screen consists of bits and bytes, and nonchalantly take things as they are. However, in a world, where “anything goes”, the fundamental questions and values that make us human are all too easily forgotten. We find it convenient to change our answers or principles according to context. To remain true to ourselves as humans, our multiple personae and personalities must be joined in a constant dialogue, discussing our moral outlook.

“Life on the Screen” is based on hundreds of interviews Sherry Turkle conducted with MIT students, children, new computer users and others. They are presented as illustrative excerpts, all too quickly dismissed by some as a collection of anecdotes. Cycling through voices of scholar, author, writer, psychoanalyst, teacher, computer user and woman in society, Sherry Turkle’s observant pastiche of research, analysis and dialogue provides a rich imaginary landscape to explore and reflect upon.

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