of books by Sherry Turkle

SHERRY TURKLE, Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of the Sociology of Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Ph.D. in sociology from Harvard University, 1976. 

Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet
by Sherry Turkle
Touchstone Books, 1997

Sherry Turkle has received accolades for this book where she brings postmodernism 'down to Earth' by identifying the modern computer interface (Macintosh, Windows) with the culture of simulation, rather than transparency, logic, and depth. It is the latter that she acknowledges postmodern thinking has learned to avoid by hovering on the surface, enjoying the opaqueness of life instead of reducing it to linear bits and pieces for the sake of a mechanistic (classical modernistic) understanding. This book is a must read for anyone fascinated by virtual reality and computer simulations as reality ersatz. For a trained scientist the artificial opaqueness promoted by postmodern thinking is rather distressing. In fact, Turkle seems to confuse simulation with opaqueness instead of seeing it as a tool to understand complex systems that are non-reducible lest they loose their behavior. Sometimes it appears as if Turkle tries to mystify simulation as something new, incomprehensible, lingering at the surface and resisting exploration of depth. The fact that most people can use a computer without understanding how it works, does not speak in favor of opaqueness. There is nothing opaque about a TV soap opera, just because it can be seen on a screen which most of us would not be able to explain either (although we know that people are not living in this box, really). The graphical user interface which was first used by Macintosh computers added functionality to computers that relieved us from the arduous task of typing in abstract computer code. Turkle calls the latter outdated transparency rooted in modernist thought, linear thinking (bad, bad, bad), and the boredom of logic. 

Postmodern thinkers get the drift. They no longer waist their time diving into the depth of complex machines, for the very complexity brings these machines alive and this is good enough. And life is opaque, too, isn't it so there we go. According to Turkle, computer scientists (working in robotics, artificial life and intelligence) are simulating the opaqueness of life, the fact that complex system have multiple, changing behavior, like our own culture, while biologists paradoxically go the other way using linear analytical thinking to deciphering the human genome. Admitted, this book was first published in 1995 in midst of a technological revolution affecting the use of computers in every realm of human activity. Yet although computers have gotten more complex, they are still calculating machines very good at simulations. Turkle likes to restrict the influence of computers on human culture to this level, and there is some truth to doing so, for it is this level where people interact with computers, i.e., use them to send e-mails, print photos, write school reports, or do their taxes. Computers have developed into tools and their most powerful influence has been in pop culture where SIMULATION is written large. The interface that Turkle describes, however, changes nothing about the inner workings of the computer as a  machine. The best paid professionals in biotechnology are computer scientists who understand the (programming) languages, can dwell beneath the surface, and not biologists, who just use an interactive Web site to search for genetic information. As such graphical user interface in the modern form of the World Wide Web and Internet has influenced the understanding of ourselves as human beings through the power of the image of the computer as machine then and tool of simulation now. That is the best way I can understand Turkle's book and message. But we still know that a computer, as human like as it may appear to us, is still a machine. And a computer enjoys no preferential treatment when we call it names, for we do the some thing with our toaster when it malfunctions. 

September 4, 2000 /  © 2000 Lukas K. Buehler / go back to Book Review Home