Taking things at interface value

June 25, 1999

Sherry Turkle's students say 'real life' is just another computer window - and it is not their best one. Ayala Ochert reports

When Sherry Turkle came across a character in an internet "virtual room" called Dr Sherry - a cyberpsychologist conducting interviews with net users - she wasn't sure whether she should be flattered or disturbed. Turkle is known for her studies of shifting identities on the internet, but Dr Sherry was not her creation. Someone was using her public persona for their purposes. The surreal encounter left her feeling "a little piece of her history was spinning out of control".

Turkle has documented the fragmentation of identity on the internet - the phenomenon of multiple, contradictory selves inhabiting the same person - so one might think she would be perfectly comfortable coming across an online version of herself, but she admits the episode left her uneasy. Multiple identities may be a postmodern concept, but, as Turkle explains, she is a "modernist trying to deal with a postmodern phenomenon".

In 1968, at 18, Turkle found herself immersed in a hothouse of Parisian intellectual culture, listening at the feet of thinkers such as Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes. Although unsure what to make of the esoteric ideas of poststructuralism, she was convinced of their importance and later returned to France to write her PhD thesis on how ideas from psychoanalysis found their way into the popular imagination.

She has long since left psychoanalysis behind, but during her 20 years as a sociologist of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she has continued to examine how abstract academic ideas are carried and translated into everyday life.

Turkle's move away from psychoanalysis was prompted by a student who complained that a Freudian slip was no more than an "information processing error". She realised she was witnessing an important new cultural phenomenon. Computers were profoundly altering the ways people thought about themselves and people had started to treat computers as "objects to think with".

"New ideas are supported, sustained, carried and made to feel natural by computers," explains Turkle. In interviews with hundreds of adults and children, she found their relationships with computers led them to think about themselves and their minds in new ways, the subject of her influential book The Second Self.

Turkle used her training as a clinical psychologist to delve into the innermost thoughts and feelings of people who regularly construct new identities on the internet. Many have found they can reinvent themselves and explore different sides of themselves in virtual communities. Often, people take on several different personae at the same time and as they cycle through the windows of their computer screens, they "cycle through" different aspects of themselves. One of her students confided: "RL is just one more window, and it's not usually my best." By RL, he meant real life - a sentiment shared by other students.

Much of Turkle's research has focused on children, who have no qualms about entering into relationships with computers. She regards her daughter with special interest and is mystified by some of the things she says. On a trip to Venice, seven-year-old Rebecca pointed to a jellyfish in the water. "Look. It's so realistic!" she said. "I'm still trying to unpack all the things she could have meant," says Turkle, a little concerned.

When Turkle conducted her research for The Second Self in the early 1980s, the computer was still what she calls the "ultimate modernist machine". To use a computer then was to be involved in the gritty reality of information processing - you typed in commands and the computer carried out operations. Computers appeared no less mechanical than a car and if anything went wrong you could simply "look under the hood" to fix it. A generation of people were taught computers were logical and that in order to use one, you had to "think like a computer". "Early computers encouraged analytical understanding right down to the level of the electron," says Turkle.

But all that changed very quickly. "In a surprising and counter-intuitive twist, in the last decade, the mechanical engines of computers have been grounding the radically non-mechanical philosophy of postmodernism," asserts Turkle in her most recent book, Life on the Screen.

In the years between The Second Self and Life on the Screen, two dramatic shifts in computer use occurred. The first was the introduction of the Macintosh computer and the widespread adoption of graphical interfaces such as Microsoft Windows, software packages involving the use of images and icons. The second shift came in the sudden, enormous popularity of the internet.

"Modernist ways of knowing were carried by early computers, postmodernist ways of knowing are carried by contemporary computers. The Macintosh was a consumer object that made people more comfortable with a new way of knowing." Its graphical interfaces, says Turkle, moved us from a culture of calculation into a culture of simulation.

In particular, we have become comfortable with "taking things at interface value" and not concerning ourselves with trying to understand what is going on beneath the surface. Once we have experienced computers in this way, we are more inclined to accept the idea that we need not "look under the hood" in other areas of life. "The Macintosh has served as a carrier object for the (postmodern) idea that search for depth and mechanism is futile, that it is more realistic to explore the world of shifting surfaces than to embark on a search for origins and structure," she adds.

Instead of typing commands, people "conversed" with these new computers through dialogue boxes and developed a more personal relationship with them. They encouraged a new style of thinking that Turkle calls "tinkering", but which earlier thinkers such as Claude Levi-Strauss called "bricolage" - experimenting, clicking on different images to see what works and what does not, using your own ingenuity to explore possibilities.

Early computers required users to go about things in a rigid step-by-step manner, but the interactive style fostered by Macs and Windows-based computers has led tinkering to become the modus operandi of modern PCs. Since it has been made acceptable by computer use, tinkering has become the dominant style of thinking of a new generation.

In the early days, when Turkle was in Paris, she found the ideas of Lacan and others hard to grasp. They seemed abstract, esoteric and appeared to have nothing to do with her life. What did these intellectuals mean when they said the self was "decentred" and was sex really an "exchange of signifiers"? she wondered. Although she came to understand these ideas at a purely intellectual level, it was not until she got on the internet that they began to make perfect sense. "Computers embody postmodernist theory and bring it down to earth," she says.

Turkle is not the only one to feel this way. A student who dropped out of a class on social theory later told her, when he put together a hypertext web site, that he had finally understood what Jacques Derrida meant by text being constructed by the audience and by the instability of meaning. "Maybe I wouldn't have to drop out now," he joked.

According to Turkle, computers have not just helped us to see things differently, they have changed us. She points to how much more at ease we have now become with the idea of computer psychotherapy. Twenty years ago, people were horrified by the idea of talking through their problems with a computer program. "They would say: 'But it never had a mother!' Now they are more likely to say, 'Show me the demo,' " says Turkle.

Our increased intimacy with computers, and our willingness to relate to them on a personal level, may have rendered moot certain long-standing academic questions. For years, people working in artificial intelligence have been consumed by the issue of whether intelligent machines are "really, really" intelligent.

Turkle believes this question has been superseded by people's interaction with such machines. The question has not been answered, but Turkle doubts whether it is still pertinent. "Over the past ten years, it has become apparent that the future does not lie in this 'really, really' question. It lies in taking things at interface value. That is to say, when people are in the presence of an intelligent artefact, they behave 'as if' it were really intelligent."

She calls this phenomenon the "Blade Runner effect", after the cult movie. "Once a computer has saved your life, once you have fallen in love with a computer, once you have a relationship with it, do you care about the 'really, really'? Not really," she suggests.

Unlike many postmodernist theorists, who have been called dense and obscure, Turkle is refreshingly straightforward - she has no time for obfuscation and no patience for those who are intentionally vague. Nor does she embrace all things postmodern. In fact, she is particularly critical of the simulation culture we now live in and the fact that children are not brought up to be truly computer literate.

"To be a citizen today, you need to know how simulations work and that's not what we're teaching in our computer literacy courses. We're not teaching about simulation, so children are not 'simulation literate'," says Turkle, citing the example of a girl who had learned that "raising taxes always leads to riots" from playing SimCity, a computer game that simulates the workings of a city. By taking everything at interface value, children do not realise they have power to change the hidden assumptions behind computers. Turkle knows that looking behind the simulations is a modernist ideal, but she defends it all the same.

"I'm not nostalgic for the modernist and I'm not celebrating the postmodernist. The two things should be kept in tension. I think we gain the most when we push modernist understanding to the limit, stand at the limit, appreciate the limitations, then move on," she proposes.

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