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|In Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, MIT
Professor of Sociology Sherry Turkle examines how human-computer
interaction, especially as related to the Internet, has shaped our
perception of self. The book has a distinct Boston air to it -- thankfully
that of a cozy Cambridge coffee shop and not a downwind Charles River pier.
Dr. Turkle, a licensed clinical psychologist who earned her joint Ph.D. in Personality Psychology and Sociology from Harvard, pursues three themes:
THE MODERN AND THE POSTMODERN
The first section of Life on the Screen explores (in easily comprehensible language) how the modernist linear computational aesthetic, which construed the computer as a giant calculator, has been challenged by the non-linear and dynamic postmodern view of the computer as a tool for simulation and surface exploration. For Turkle, this change was signified by the Macintosh operating system, which encouraged users to stay on the surface of the computer and take things "at interface value".
The author draws on experiences from her 1978 programming class at Harvard. Her professor, an adherent of structured programming, insisted that the computer's logical base dictated a set, logical approach to programming. His model consisted of breaking down a task down to its components and constructing the final program a piece at a time.
Turkle, as well as some other students in the class, had a hard time with this rigid approach. She was more comfortable with a "softer" approach, known as bricolage. Rather than using a top-down structured method, bricolageurs work from the bottom up, creating the program bit by bit without necessarily imposing a grand design to the process. There is a detailed discussion of these students' frustrations with the "harder" approach.
Much of the rest of this section explores the familiar debate between users who prefer command line operating interfaces and individuals who swear by the more opaque Macintosh paradigm. Turkle also discusses how Piaget's theories of child development relate to the soft/hard paradigm debate which gives the section a unique flavor. As in the rest of the book, Turkle's illustrative quotes from her field interviews are fascinating.
YOU'RE NOT ALIVE UNTIL WE SAY YOU'RE ALIVE
The second section of Life on the Screen focuses on artificial intelligence and how "alive" computer systems are to users. Interestingly, though perhaps not surprisingly, Turkle notes a substantive intergenerational difference in answering the question. Today's children are used to dealing with systems that react "intelligently", something not seen in computer-based systems until recently, while adults have profoundly different memories of automated systems.
The classical determinant for a computer being "alive" is the Turing Test, where a test subject communicates with two entities (one human, the other a computer) through a computer text interface. If the subject is unable to distinguish the program from the human, the program "passes" the test.
While a number of programs have been written in hopes of passing the Turing Test, other tools have been developed with different goals. One program, called Eliza, takes on an almost psychotherapeutic role, reflecting a user's statements, often as a question or remark designed to elicit further input.
After discussing how users interact and, on occasion, become emotionally involved with these programs, Turkle takes on artificial life, the descendant of artificial intelligence. Artificial life, which encompasses technologies such as genetic algorithms and other evolutionary systems, poses interesting questions as to the nature of life. Are the four criteria offered at a 1987 Los Alamos conference, which do not demand a physical presence, appropriate, or is a body an absolute necessity?
At least indirectly, the second section addresses how one might construct an artificial personality independent of its residence in a human being. The final portion of the book takes the discussion to a personal level, examining how computer-based environments influence our sense of self.
ON THE INTERNET, NO ONE KNOWS YOU'RE A...
Computer-mediated communications, as exemplified by Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs), offer individuals the unprecedented ability to interact with others with complete anonymity. By virtue of this property, users can experiment by representing themselves as being any gender, orientation, race, or profession. Of particular interest to Turkle, though, is the potential psychotherapeutic value of being free to reveal aspects of their personality which would not otherwise surface.
The author relates several cases where computer users frequented MUDs as surrogates for or significant addenda to their real-world social lives. Interwoven with the histories is Turkle's analysis, which concludes that "MUDs are highly evocative and provide much grist for the mill of a psychodynamic therapeutic process." Unfortunately, the lack of a trained psychotherapist to interact with the user and reincorporate past elements of the user's expression make the virtual communities' ability to aid psychological growth an uncertain proposition.
Turkle also discusses authors who have raised concerns regarding the effect simulated reality has had on education. In particular, the author mentions Stephen Talbott's The Future Does Not Compute, which decries the emphasis on simulation over physical experience. While the discussion will be familiar to anyone who has read Talbott, Roszak's The Cult of Information or Slouka's War of the Worlds, the issues are well worth examining from Turkle's vantage as a psychologist.
I found Life on the Screen to be an eminently readable book, sharing the anecdotal nature of Rheingold's The Virtual Community and the analytical feel of a well-organized set of psychological case studies. (Yes, they do exist!) While there is also a strong MIT flavor to the text, with references to Turkle's involvement in Project Athena, activities with the MIT Media Lab and Marvin Minsky's artificial intelligence/cognition theories, there are numerous references to research carried on at other institutions (such as Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center) to balance the load.
Though many of the issues raised in the book (Mac vs. IBM, the impact of computers on relationships etc.) are well-explored, there are plenty of new themes and unique takes on familiar ones to justify adding this book to your library promptly.
Curtis D. Frye (email@example.com) is the editor and chief reviewer of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He worked for four years as a defense industry analyst at The MITRE Corporation in McLean, VA, and is the author of Privacy-Enhanced Business, from Quorum Books.