Howard Rheingold

Howard Rheingold

Mind to Mind

With Sherry Turkle, author of "Life on the Screen"

You're sitting in front of a large computer screen.

You click on a little picture of an antenna and a window opens up onto a chat channel where everybody knows you as Cosmic Charlie.

You size the window and leave the chat channel open on a corner of your screen.

You click on a picture of a tiny piece of paper and open a document you are composing.

You click on a picture of a little castle and open an electronic window into a MUD where you are Zlx, a trigendered witch of the twenty seventh century.

You click on the Netscape icon and websurf.

Then you cycle for a few hours among your identi-frags. Chat, compose, MUD, surf, chat, compose, MUD, surf.

You do this all day, every day. For years.

What's going on here? What does it mean to have millions of people online, living through at least a couple of identities each, smeared over the entire world? More and more of us divide our attention into windows, turn on the stereo, and groove with it. What is this activity doing to our minds?

Life On the Screen (Book Cover)
Sherry Turkle
What kinds of changes are in store for our society if enough of us spend enough time playing and working in a computer simulation universe where we can all be three people, none of whom answers to the name our parents gave us?

Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet by MIT professor Sherry Turkle, Ph.D., brings public discourse about cyberculture into sharp focus .

Turkle asserts, first of all, that the personal computer is an "object-to-think-with" for understanding the changes computers are inducing in our minds.

The "Freudian Slip" was an object-to-think-with that helped people at the beginning of this century integrate the idea that all humans harbor unconscious parts of our personalities. At the time, it was scandalous to suggest that people have secret sexy selves that only reveal themselves through slips of the tongue. Through the metaphor of the "Freudian slip," Freud's ideas influenced the way people think about our own personalities, even the vast majority who never read a word Freud wrote.

Turkle points out ways that computers and networks are objects-to-think-with for a networked era. We are learning to feel comfortable about coexisting and conversing with intelligent machines. We are learning to trust simulations and treat them as sentient beings in some cases. And we are learning to accept a new view of our own selves that fits well into a world of pervasive simulation.

"We come to see ourselves differently as we catch sight of our images in the mirror of the machine," Turkle writes. The visual, point-and-click interface popularized by the Macintosh computer is one of her objects-to-think-with: "The development of windows for computer interfaces was a technical innovation motivated by the desire to get people working more efficiently by cycling through different applications. But in the daily practice of many computer users, windows have become a powerful metaphor for thinking about the self as a multiple distributed system." Turkle started her systematic observation of the changing psychology of computer users in the early nineteen eighties when the personal computer revolution first started happening. She talked with real people with fake names who described the way life feels in a MOO, the emotional components of living on an IRC channel, the way their onscreen and offscreen lives collide or merge. Turkle uses the stories told to her by nursery school children and undergraduates to explore the boundaries of human and machine:
"As human beings become increasingly intertwined with the technology and with each other via the technology, old distinctions about what is specifically human and specifically technological become more complex. Are we living life on the screen or in the screen? Our new technologically enmeshed relationships oblige us to ask to what extent we ourselves have become cyborgs, transgressive mixtures of biology, technology, and code. The traditional distance between people and machines has become harder to maintain....The computer is an evocative object that causes old boundaries to be renegotiated."

I'll never look at those cute little icons on my electronic desktop in the same way again. And I'm looking with fresh eyes about the ways the computer is teaching me how to act and think. I asked Dr. Turkle three questions in e-mail. Here are the questions and her replies.

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