For six years Sherry Turkle, as an assistant professor of sociology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, absorbed the computer culture. She participated in programs and interviewed over 400 people engineers, virtuoso programmers (known as ‘hackers’), researchers in artificial intelligence, video games adepts, professors and students of computer science, and children growing up with computers and computer toys in playrooms and classrooms.
The results at her research are original and thought-provoking. Now that computers are part of our daily life, they also affect the way we think about ourselves. For today’s children, computers offer mind-stretching opportunities for self-exploration – but do they lead to mechanical views of human nature? Video games provide opportunities for entertainment and self-expression – but they can also become obsessional objects to the lonely or the aggressive.
In the past the debate has been limited to specialists and academics. Now it includes us all.
We are using ‘life on the screen’ to engage in new ways of thinking about relationships, politics, sex and the self. Based on nearly two decades of research, observing the often intense and emotional relationships that people have through and with computers, Life on the Screen is a fascinating and disturbing exploration of the new electronic age.
Turkle explores a lot of fascinating territory in this book. She looks at how, as the computer has grown more complex over the last two decades, our reaction to it has grown less hostile. We still think of it as ‘different’, ‘not-alive’, but no longer ‘mere machine’. She looks at the history of Artificial Intelligence and Artificial Life, and how our metaphors have changed from symbolic, top-down, transparent, reductionist computation, to those of a connectionist, bottom-up, opaque, surface, holistic approach. With these changes in metaphor, we have become more willing to contemplate that a machine might be ‘intelligent’, and that we ourselves might be somewhat machine-like.
[Myself, I do not believe that the ‘post-modernist’, surface-only, approach is intrinsically better than the modernist reductionist approach. Rather, I think that each provides one possible way of thinking about a system, and that we need to use both ways, and more, to get a fuller understanding.]
And she explores some people‘s lives in simulated computer worlds, MUDs and chat-rooms, and how this allows them to explore multiple personae, allowing them a more decentralised view of the self. For some people RL (real life) is just one more persona, no more important than the rest.
Turkle is a social scientist and psychologist. She has gathered the material for this book by means of interviews with a wide cross section of users, and she uses these interviews to provide a wealth of fascinating illustrative anecdotes to flesh out her main thesis.
Very thought provoking fare. Here are some of the thoughts it provoked in me.
As computers have become more complex they have become opaque – we can’t understand them as machines, and experience them on their surface level only. We now interact with them by means of simulations – not just video games, but simulations of pieces of paper, grids of figures, boxes of index cards, and filing cabinets.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, when people claimed CP/M and MS-DOS were transparent, they meant there was nothing to prevent them seeing what was going on all the way down to the bare machine. Now in the 1990s, claiming transparency for MacOS and MS-Windows, they mean there is nothing from the machine intruding to prevent them seeing and interacting with just the application: they ‘think in MS-Word’, the machine itself has become opaque. These two opposed usages reflect different styles of users: those who want to understand and be in ‘control’ at all levels, and those who want to use the applications. Interestingly, some people prefer MS-Windows over MacOS, because they feel it gives the ‘the best of both worlds’; they can sit on the surface as a user when they want to, and they can drop down into MS-DOS when they feel the need, or when the surface transparency illusion can no longer hold.
I appreciate both styles. The order I was introduced to computers was: IBM mainframe and Cray supercomputer (early 1980s), BBC micro (mid 1980s), Sun Unix workstation (late 1980s), Macintosh (early 1990s) and MS-Windows (mid 1990s). As a user of applications (spreadsheets, word processors), I prefer the windowing ‘surface’ interface of the newer machines, but as a developer I really do need that extra level of control. And in my experience, MacOS gives the best surface, but is a pain when something goes awry (“I just want a command line so that I can tell it what to do” – after all, we invented writing thousands of years ago because pictures only communicate if you already know what they mean). Unix gives the best depth, but is not at all easy for the novice or casual user (“Unix is a great place to live, but I wouldn’t want to visit there”). So, whenever I use MS-Windows, I can always think of a different machine I would prefer to be using in that style (but, of course, it’s not always the same different machine).
In the 1980s, programming was taught as ‘structured’, and ‘top down design’, and anyone who wanted to use a ‘bottom up’ or ‘bricolage’ approach was penalised. Turkle tells a story of the way she preferred to write essays: lots of ideas on little bits of paper scattered about, rearranged, gradually brought into a structure. So to satisfy her teachers, who were of the ‘outline this week, essay next week’ school, she would write the entire essay in the first week, then abstract an outline from it. With the advent of ‘surface’ computing, encouraging an experimental, ‘try it and see’ approach, the bricolage style has come to be a better way of interacting with computers.
I think the truth lies, and has always lain, half way between these extremes of total rigidity and total fluidity. Some structure is needed, but it is there as a guide, not an immutable framework, and when the details being fleshed out don’t fit, or suggest a better approach, or reveal something previously unknown, then the structure is revised. Software design, or essay writing, is an iterative process.
And this fits in with how programming is really done. Every one knows the old ‘waterfall model’ (specification, then design, then coding, then testing) is some abstraction that rarely if ever happens in practice. Indeed, I remember being at a talk given by Edsgar Dijkstra where he himself said that top down programming was a good way to document a design, but he never meant it to be the way to do the design in the first place. So maybe Turkle and her interviewees suffered teachers who had fallen for the idea that the ‘post hoc rationalisation’ was in fact the development process. And maybe, in the 1990s, the message is getting through to those teachers. Let’s just hope we don’t end up spending a decade at the other, bricolage, extreme!
Echoing architect Louis Kahn’s famous question, “What does a brick want?,” Turkle asks, “What does simulation want?” Simulations want, even demand, immersion, and the benefits are clear. Architects create buildings unimaginable before virtual design; scientists determine the structure of molecules by manipulating them in virtual space; physicians practice anatomy on digitized humans. But immersed in simulation, we are vulnerable. There are losses as well as gains. Older scientists describe a younger generation as “drunk with code.” Young scientists, engineers, and designers, full citizens of the virtual, scramble to capture their mentors’ tacit knowledge of buildings and bodies. From both sides of a generational divide, there is anxiety that in simulation, something important is slipping away.
Turkle’s examination of simulation over the past twenty years is followed by four in-depth investigations of contemporary simulation culture: space exploration, oceanography, architecture, and biology.
I sat down to read Turkle’s latest book (published in 2015, four years ago: my reading is backed up), only to discover I had not read her previous book (published in 2011: my reading is really backed up). So I read that instead.
This is a book of two haves, with one message. In the first half, Turkle researches how people relate to “robot companions”, robots programmed to interact with us, and even express faux emotions, such as purring or smiling. In the second half, she researches how we relate to each other when our communication is mediated by technology, such as via texting or Facebook. The message is the same: we are overly-prone to expect true emotion from robots, and are less prone to expect deep interaction with other people, and these facts diminish us has human beings.
This is all told through multiple case studies, conversations, and experiments. Turkle gives robot companions to seniors in care homes, and watches how people respond to the robots more, even when family members are present. She gives robot companions to children, and watches how they relate much more strongly that they do to passive toys. And she discusses cell phone and Facebook culture with teens, and with adults. The results as presented are very depressing, even more so in the light of recent news about the influence of companies like Facebook and Twitter. I felt the only sensible response to all this is to “nuke the entire [technology] from orbit … It’s the only way to be sure”.
Turkle finishes off on a rather more optimistic note. She reminds us that, although the rationale for robot companions for the elderly is “robots or loneliness”, we should actually critique that rationale, and reframe the issue.
But is it we who decide? We shall see.
We see the costs of the flight from conversation everywhere. At the dinner table, children compete with phones for their parents’ attention. Friends learn new strategies to keep conversations going as their peers raise and lower their eyes to check their phones. At work we retreat to our screens, although it is conversation at the water cooler that increases productivity and commitment. Online, we want to share opinions that our followers will agree with—a politics that shies away from the real conflicts and solutions of the public square.
Always connected, we see loneliness as a problem that technology should solve. The necessary conversations of solitude and self-reflection are endangered. We rely on other people to give us a sense of ourselves even as our capacity for empathy and relationship suffers.
The moment is urgent, but there is good news: We are resilient. When we give ourselves and our children space for conversation, we become more aware of each other and our communities. And we are able to rediscover ourselves.
The virtues of conversation are timeless, and this most basic technology, talk, is a powerful response to the challenges we face in our digital age.
For the failing connections of the digital world, it is the talking cure.