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Within a few years, she noticed that even children in grade school were speaking like MIT computer romantics about their own machines. "When you program a computer, there's a little piece of your mind, and now it's a little piece of the computer's mind," one sixth-grade student told her during this period. The computer already was, says Turkle, "between a machine and a mind." But that little girl had been taught enough basic programming skills to create the rules for a workable program herself. Like driving a car, programming a computer kept her in the "driver's seat," in charge of the machine's operations, and maintained the ancient distinction (though a little more tenuous) between mind and machine, person and tool. The computer might enable her to express her mind in an almost magical way, but it hadn't yet become an extension of her mind: it was still a "second" self, which hadn't (yet) usurped the first.
By the mid-'90s, when Turkle published Life on the Screen, however, almost nobody who wasn't a computer expert had any idea what went on inside a computer, much less how to program one. At the same time, the now-mysterious computer, increasingly networked with other computers connecting people around the world, was an open portal to vast possibilities, allowing people to play with their own, and others' identity. The computer was both "opaque" and interactive: you couldn't see beyond its screen face into its "brain," and you couldn't understand how to manipulate it to do your bidding, but you could respond to the programs already there, and they could respond to you. These devices had begun to look and act less like machines than "real" people.
But while the possibilities for creating new identities—many different identities at once, each with distinct names, faces, bodies, back-stories—were endlessly seductive and engaging (not to mention time-consuming), the process could sometimes spin out of control. Turkle recalls how creepily disconcerting it was to discover someone online advertising him/herself as "Dr. Sherry," a virtual persona who seemed uncannily like "Sherry Turkle." Still, for all her caveats about the potential downsides to the computer, she viewed the ability to play with identity as liberating, even therapeutic, because people could imagine for themselves different, more creative and hopeful stories than the tired, restrictive narratives they'd been handed by family and society.
In her latest book, Alone Together, she strikes a more somber note as she contemplates the Next Big Thing in cybernetic technology, what she calls "the robotic moment." What's shocking isn't that robots are increasingly being used as ersatz caretakers, pets, friends, confidants, even sexual and romantic partners, but that so many of us, she's discovered, welcome them, emotionally and philosophically. Robots, many apparently feel, are often even better than people—more accessible, dependable, reassuring, and friendly; never demanding, judgmental, or argumentative—and they don't die. So, many of us are beginning to wonder, what impact will this, or any of our deepening infatuations with all things cyber, have on our ability to connect face-to-face with each other, in real time? Does virtual intimacy degrade our experience of the other kind and, indeed, of all encounters, of any kind?
Questions like these are increasingly being raised as we collectively wonder just exactly what we've wrought in the Digital Age. But what distinguishes Turkle from other thinkers and researchers is both her clinical background and her ability to give language to phenomena that still seem formless and inchoate to us. In articulating exactly how the Internet is transforming our culture, she manages to avoid both extreme alarmism and cyber-boosterism, while giving us what anthropologists call a "thick description" of both the human behavior and the rich, complex social context in which it occurs. The result is that her work regularly offers both a shock of recognition and an immediate sense of illumination: "Yes, that's exactly the way it is, and now I understand it better." For therapists especially, her work is invaluable. Clients bring into sessions their experiences with many significant life "presences"—family of origin, partner, children, friends, pet dogs and cats. Increasingly, some of their most significant personal experiences occur with and through their various gadgets. Woe to the therapist who neglects these very, very "significant others."
In the interview that follows with Networker editor Rich Simon, Turkle lays out some of the themes that she'll develop further as the keynote speaker at the upcoming 2011 Networker Symposium this March (see page 9).