Sherry Turkle: Life on the Screen

[Readings] (08.29.08, 4:37 pm)


Turkle presents some methods of looking at computation and culture from a psychological perspective. Her work is grounded extensively in ethnography, and follows individuals for whom computers are a part of their lives. Computers, online communication, and simulation each open new means for interaction and expression for individuals, and at the time of Turkle’s writing (1995), the influence of the internet on culture was still very fresh. It remains fresh today, probably partly due to its continually evolving and changing nature. There are clearly mixed feelings about many aspects of computation, but ultimately Turkle seems to make it out to be a force for good.


Turkle starts by looking at writing, in an anecdote about her learning French. The style of writing Turkle used in her example was bottom-up, rather than top-down, an approach that was contrary to accepted models. This approach uses dialogue and tinkering instead of formal or abstract modeling. (p. 50-51) She divides approaches to material into two categories: hard mastery and soft mastery, which are the practices of engaging with things in a top-down or bottom-up manner, respectively. This distinction is to become a major thread for part of the book, and was an important factor in her earlier work. The appearance of simulation in computer culture encourages soft mastery, bricolage, and tinkering, which make use of the ability to test and experiment, getting into a model as opposed to looking objectively at it. Piaget and Levi Strauss discuss bricolage as a stage of development in infants, but they present it as a stage to be passed, rather than a whole method of thinking. (p. 56)

In software, change has been made to account for bricolage and other styles of learning and interaction: “Instead of rules to learn, they want to create environments to explore. These new interfaces project the message, ‘Play with me, experiment with me, there is no one correct path.'” [they as software designers] (p. 60) However, this positive reception is far from unanimous: Turkle also looks at reception to computers and simulation in academic setting. There is a lot of hostility, much of that derives from the opacity of the computer, and to some domains, especially science, that opacity is threatening to fundamental principles. (p. 63-66)

On: “The Games People Play: Simulation and Its Discontents”: Turkle looks at simulation from the vantage point of games. Early children learn the tools and concepts of the game by getting a feel for them via practice. As rules became more complex, they lended to the credibility of the microworld: “A literature professor, commenting on a colleague’s children with their Christmas Nintendo gifts, likened their disclosure to that of Dante scholars, ‘a closed world of references, cross-references, and code.'” (p. 67)

On Sim games (SimCity, SimLife, etc): Simulation encourages players to develop understanding of rules and relationships, leading to estimation and intuition. Some relationships are very complex and are not understood, but this does not obstruct the interaction experience. (p. 69)

“It is easy to criticize the Sim games for their hidden assumptions, but it is also important to keep in mind that this may simply be an example of art imitating life. In this sense, they confront us with the dependency on opaque simulations that we accept in the real world. Social policy deals with complex systems that we seek to understand through computer models. These models are then used as the basis for action. And those who determine the assumptions of the model determine policy. Simulation games are not just objects for thinking about the real world but also cause us to reflect on how the real world itself has become a simulation game.” (p. 71)

Turkle defines simulation rejection and resignation. A third response is to develop a cultural criticism: “This new criticism would not lump all simulations together, but wold discriminate amongst them. It would take as its goal the development of simulations that actually help players challenge the model’s built-in assumptions.”

“Undertanding the assumptions that underlie simulation is a key element of political power. People who understand the distortions imposed by simulations are in a position to call for more direct economic and political feedback, new kinds of representation, more channels of information. They may demand greater transparency in their simulations; they may demand that the games we play (particularly the ones we use to make real life decisions) make their underlying models more accessible.” There is nonetheless fear that the complexity and opacity imposed by simulations may never be cut through. Further concern is how to understand the relationship between reality and simulation.

Reconstructing ourselves in virtual communities: there is a complex interaction and relationship between ourselves and machines, and a “complex dance of acceptance and rejection to analogies of ‘the machine.'” There is appeal to think of ourselves as cyborg and machine like. (p. 177) Describes IRC and chat, which, while textual and one of the least “dynamic” of communication methods, is extremely personal. The relationship between self and textual identity is very close. (p. 179) Turkle describes anonymity and MUDs, which can be addictive. This seems to relate in the psychological understanding- to the presentation of self. The concept of a persona is much more literal and explicit here. (p. 184)

In an interesting diversion, Turkle discusses tabletop games, citing a specific example wherein the games were used as vehicles for self definition and epiphany. These are grounds for personal exploration and discovery. Later, MUDs serve similar purpose, allow expression for emotion difficult to express well in real life. They allow certain degrees of self experimentation, and ability to work through real issues. Because of their playful nature, they are not deeply binding. They allow the experimentation of being a better self. (p. 186) “You are who you pretend to be”: identity is constructed by fantasy, (this pulls back to role experimentation in sociology), and MUDs enable this as was never possible before. (p. 192)

Alternately, MUDs may be a place to reenact the problems of real life, and may serve as an addiction. (p. 199) The interesting comparison here is that Turkle’s examples so far seem to be generally positive: interaction with technology is a means to self discovery, communication, and enlightenment. She does not delve deeply into the addictive nature of “holding power” that games exert. While they can be very much devices for progression, that seems to be less the case nowadays. Is this something that has changed, or is it just a matter of changing perspective? Or is it a matter of the people who play games? It would seem that as a medium matures, its capacity for enlightenment would grow, but if that is not the case then why is it? Is it because of the capitalization of online entertainment, that games cannot be enlightening if they are to be sold for profit?

Onto some negative qualities about online communication: MUDs enable “easy intimacy” where things can move along too quickly. Commitment is easy in virtual world, but would be too much for real life. Furthermore, due to the lack of closeness and *embodied* intimacy, it is difficult to understand the degree that the actual relationship exists. It may only be in the interactor’s minds. There is a lack of (what sociologists might call) role support. The result leads to projection onto others: “In MUDs, the lack of information about the real person to whom one is talking, the silence into which one types, the absence of visual cues, all these encourage projection. This situation leads to exaggerated likes and dislikes, to idealization and demonization.” The situation is not all that different in modern multi-user environments, MMOs, and Second Life. (p. 206)

Gender play and MUDs. This is more literal in the sense that people *play* a gender. It raises the attention to cross-gender portrayal, and gender relationships and roles. It is also much more acceptable to play at other genders. This gender play is also often about self understanding and experimentation. (p. 214)

“For some men and women, gender-bending can be an attempt to understand better or to experiment safely with sexual orientation. Bot for everyone who tries it, there is the chance to discover, as Rosalind and Orlando did in the Forest of Arden, that for both sexes, gender is constructed.” (p. 223) Each example also understands the male gender as also constructed, but modern games fail to account for this: they hand the players pre-established gender models. This is generally not done with explicit interactions, but it is with subtle things like determination of dress. Male is usually an assumed term, while female is external. Is this the result of a development that is new and occurred with the game industry?

Netsex enables confusion over the question of trust and identity. (p. 225) Also deception… textual nature implies an intimacy that is betrayed by deception. More recent environments seem to be much more jaded? (p. 228) Being digital raises new questions of being. It changes our perceptions of community, identity, relationships, gender, and other things. (p. 232)

On the erosion of the real:

Baudrillard ref: Disneyland and shopping malls are part of culture of simulation. They tend towards a culture of isolation and retreat. The loss of the real encourages this. (p. 234) Discussing the compelling nature of false Disney animatronic crocodiles, versus the imperceptibly slow real ones: “Another effect of simulation, which I’ll call the artificial crocodile effect, makes the fake seem more compelling than the real.” (p. 237)

Janice Radway ref, cross with Henry Jenkins: Engagement with media (romance, TV) offers resistance to “stultifying categories of everyday life.” This engagement is somewhat empowering, but also has other more disempowering, limiting effects (see Radway). (p. 241)

A consistent danger is that MUDs encourage people to solve non-real problems, by living in unreal places. Digital worlds enable exploration, but their appeal may be such that one may not wish to return from them. (p. 244)

Rape in MUDs: submission to digital realm also involves sacrifice of some autonomy. When one controls a rule based avatar, the player’s engagement is confined by the rules, and if those rules are compromised, or even if NOT (the rules are simply outside of player control, and possibly outside of player consent), it is possible that the player avatar be compromised horribly. The self identification and experimentation with avatars can lead to exploration and understanding, but can also lead to new forms of disempowerment and victimization. (p. 251)

A problem ultimately lies in the depth of the “emote”. Authenticity is irrelevant in a culture of simulation. Emotion displayed in a simulation is necessarily inauthentic. How does one understand feeling or emotion. Emotion or action may be easily displayed in a virtual world, but real emotion is not so easily displayed or understood. Does emote simply stand for a reflection of Frederic Jameson’s “flattening of affect in postmodern life”? (p. 254)

Reading Info:
Author/EditorTurkle, Sherry
TitleLife on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet
Tagsdigital media, dms, cyberculture
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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