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Sherry Turkle Sees e-Life at the Crossroads

by Mary Sykes Wylie and Rich Simon

Sherry Turkle introduces her 1995 book, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, with a quote from a poem by Walt Whitman: "There was a child went forth every day, / And the first object he look'd upon, that object he became." For Turkle, an ethnographically trained sociologist and psychologist (the founding director of MIT's Initiative on Technology and Self), Whitman was conveying a profound truth: "We make our objects and our objects make us," as she's said. In our high-tech, computer-obsessed age, Turkle's key mission has become to unravel "how our increasingly intimate relationship with technology . . . changes the way we see ourselves as people. It isn't so much what technology is doing for us, but what it's doing to us." More and more, as Turkle sees it, we're the machine, and the machine is us.

Turkle has spent the last 30 years studying what our machines have come to mean to us, and how they're altering—sometimes radically—our understanding and experience of intimacy, privacy, relationship, personal identity, even our sense of what we consider "reality" and "virtual reality"—which one is the "real" reality? Few would want to return to the primitive B.C. era (before computer): our electronic stuff is just too useful, too pleasurable, too seductive. But that seductiveness incurs significant costs, which we've barely begun to appreciate.

In her books, particularly The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit (1985), Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (1995), and the just-published Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Turkle has ventured into the deep heart of what she calls "a forbidden experiment, using ourselves as subjects with no controls." Although hundreds of millions of people in all parts of the globe are taking part in this experiment, they're largely unwitting participants.

Turkle's own background was certainly not that of a classic "techie"—no building contraptions from wires, boxes, and transistors in her dorm room. In fact, the dominant technology of her 1950s childhood in Brooklyn was television, then a distinctly family-friendly, relationship-sustaining medium. Unlike computers and other digital devices, which isolate people in their own virtual worlds, television in the '50s and '60s was, says Turkle, "the family hearth": people gathered around it the way their ancestors sat companionably around the fire several thousand years ago. "We didn't just watch television. We commented about the television; we talked back to the television; we talked to each other through the television; and discussed what was on the television. It was a very interactive, collaborative experience; a very communitarian experience. We were as involved with each other as with the television."

In 1965, she left her cozy, ethnic neighborhood—in effect her "home village"—for the high-powered, intellectually and culturally intense world of Radcliffe College, the "Harvard Annex" for women (now wholly merged with Harvard). After graduating, she began graduate school at Harvard, studying sociology and personality psychology. She'd go on to do clinical coursework and internships and become licensed as a clinical psychologist.

In 1977, Turkle began teaching psychology at MIT, where computers were of course a large part of the scene and her colleagues were already using computer metaphors ("bits," "bytes," "programming," "clearing buffer," "bugging") to talk about the human mind. The psychologist in Turkle, trained to listen to every word for meanings and significations that might not be immediately obvious—her first psychology course at MIT covered the subject of Freudian slips!—realized that people weren't just talking about computers as useful, interesting tools. They were talking about something deeply important to them, something that was far more emotionally evocative than, say, a washing machine or even a vintage 1958 red Corvette. It was the beginning of a new era, in which machines have become increasingly identified with the self.

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