Sherry Turkle: The Second Self

[Readings] (08.29.08, 4:35 pm)


This is one of Sherry Turkle’s earlier books, and the crux of this is the understanding of the computer as an evocative object. It calls into question various preconceptions and understandings that we have of ourselves: what it means to be human, what it means to think. By being a fuzzy object that expresses some humanlike characteristics but not others, it leads us to examine and return to the nature and definition of those characteristics. In this book, Turkle looks specifically at cognition, learning, programming, and the various cultures that have emerged around computation. While a bit dated, her findings certainly inform an understanding of the development of culture and computers to the modern day.


Turkle opens with an analysis of the “Wild Child” who was discovered in France in the year 1800. This occurred shortly after the French Revolution, while theories of human nature and culture were wildly fluctuating, the Wild Child was a “test case” for understanding many of those theories. He was an evocative object, and our understanding of him challenged and provoked new understandings of what it means to essentially be human, and our relationship with nature. (p. 12)

The computer is similarly an evocative object because of its holding power, which “creates the conditions for other things to happen.” (p. 15) It provokes self-reflection. “The computer is a ‘metaphysical machine’, a ‘psychological machine’, not just because it might be said to have a psychology, but because it influences how we think about our own.” (p. 16)

Using here, a symbolic embedding of human concepts within devices. This difference is cognitive, not embodied, but human ideals and values are put into the machine. As a product of this interaction, the machine concepts and values [as in all communication] return to the user. The computer has not a mind, but reflects the minds of its creators and programmers. (p. 17)

Turkle on technological determinism vs attribution: Attribution claims that technology has long-term impact on people, while attribution claims that technology only has meanings and can be understood in terms of meanings given to it. Both are wrong, computer evokes rather than determines, and opacity of the computer prevents attribution. (p. 21)

The evocative computer, through engagement with ourselves, encourages us to think introspectively and become philosophers. Asks “what does it mean to be human?” Behind anxiety of popular reception to AI is a concern over what it means to think. This is similar to the anxiety in the 1950s over nuclear holocaust (as evidenced in film and whatnot), and the subtle sexual anxiety that underlies Freudian psychology. (p. 24)

Evocative objects are on the borderline, inspire breakage to understand. They are marginal: too far from humans for real empathy, but autonomous enough to be ambiguous. Turkle uses Piaget’s metaphysical developmental studies that inspire transcendent questions. (p. 32)

There is a conflict between things and people. Contrast things with The Sims. The border here is especially fuzzy. Software is an extension of the computer- Turkle is discussing physical devices, but software adds an extra layer into this understanding. There is a meta consideration of the concept of intelligence or humanity: rational explanation undermines this: computers are rational, but not human. (p. 61)

On the seduction of games: “Those who fear the games often compare them to television. Game players almost never make this analogy. When they try to describe games in terms of other things, the comparison is more likely to be with sports, sex, or meditation. Television is something you watch. Video games are something you do, something you do to your head, a world that you enter, and to a certain extent, they are something you ‘become’. The widespread analogy with television is understandable. But analogies between the two screens ignore the most important elements behind the games’ seduction: video games are interactive computer microworlds.” (p. 66-67)

Games lend immersion, and to the feeling of being cut off outside the magic circle. For some (notably Jarish, one of Turkle’s primary informants in this chapter), games provide immersive environment which is comfortable alternate to real world, whose complexities cannot be understood fully. The world of games is whole, conscious, it can be a pleasing alternative to reality. (p. 72)

On Woody Allen and the interactive novel: Echoes adaptation and fanfiction here: The key is immersion, being in a world. This aspect counters the classical understanding of phenomenology which wants to look only in the real physical world. A difference is in identity: computers enable projection of other identities, and allow for self-insertion, role-playing, and controlling characters. (p. 77) A reference to Gone with The Wind: also a matter of world construction. Clearly the present of the game industry is quite different. (p. 78)

On the culture of simulation: “Video games offer a chance to live in simulated, rule-governed worlds. They bring this kind of experience into the child’s culture and serve as a bridge to the larger computer culture beyond. They are not the only agent to do so. Reinforcements come from surprising quarters. Children come to the video games from a culture increasingly marked by the logic of simulation.” (p. 79) Later Turkle discusses Dungeons and Dragons: which operate as a rule-governed simulation fantasy.

On “playing house” style of games: Turkle is placing rules in opposition to empathy, but rules [especially social ones] underlie even abstract fantasies. These enable experimentation and play with real domains. Sociologists describe understanding of rules and structures that occur within society, and see “playing house” games as role-learning. There is not simulation proper, but there is a reflectivity that is also present in simulation. (p. 83)

Papert and LOGO: Learn to speak French the way French children do: speak French to French-speaking people. Learn mathematical logic by speaking in math to a mathematical entity. This is Piagetian learning, it happens automatically in the right circumstances. From translation studies, we know that language implies culture. (p. 97)

Learning and mastery: Various different styles, both hard and soft are valid. Leads to wondering: What of the middle between them? Top down style can be disasterous if the initial plan is faulty. The bottom up may never get anywhere due to its lack of structure. What of a middle-out strategy? (p. 105)

Programming is an ambiguous field by which people may explore methods for reality. Naturally, this leads to exploration of gender. This is enabled by the objectivity of the computer. “Approximate models” could be simulated and addressed reflectively. (p. 109)

Adolescence is characterized by self-discovery and self-definition. Example here is a girl for whom power was threatening, but constraint enabled control. Computer enables a “world apart” for building a new self-image. (p. 145)

Reflection is an externalization of the self. Computation and conceptual metaphors offer a new means for looking at the self, in relation to the machine, and to the world. (p. 155) Children eventually turn to using computational metaphors to describe themselves, and can extend to culture at large. Has this taken place?

The computer is a catalyst for culture formation. This is even more true with widespread internet adoption and is discussed in “Life on the Screen”. A new computational aesthetic enables a new cultural understanding. It enables previously inaccessible understanding, not just information, but knowledge. Considering wikipedia and the like. (p. 166)

A computer is an object to think with and more, it is a building block around which may emerge new cultures and values. “The men and women I am writing about here also used the computer as an ‘object-to-think-with.’ But here the computer experience was used to think about more than oneself. It was used to think about society, politics, and education. A particular experience of the machine–only one of the experiences that the machine offers–became a building block for a culture whose values centered around clarity, transparency, and involvement with the whole. Images of computational transparency were used to suggest political worlds where relations of power would not be veiled, where people might control their destinies, where work would facilitate a rich intellectual life. Relationships with a computer became the depository of longings for a better, simpler, and more coherent life.” (p. 173-174) Here, again, the computer is a vehicle for utopian thinking. However, while the utopia may not be realized (and indeed, it hasn’t been), these computational values have definitely been adopted within computer culture.

Games feel more knowable than the depth and incomplete engagement with the real world. This is the opposite of phenomenological expectation. It relates back to mechanization and mechanical reproduction. In a mechanized world, the person is a cog and may only see a part. In a game world, a person may see the wholeness of the system and attain mastery over it. (p. 186)

Relationships with computers: Children: keep it mysterious. Adults: make it transparent, want total understanding. (p. 195) This is not to say that children do not try to understand them, but they use computers as a vehicle for deeper philosophical understanding of things. Adults will use computers to escape the overbearing gravity and complexity of the world. (p. 192)

On the controversy of “The Hacker”: The concern is over the relationship to engineering tools, but this concern does not apply to artistic tools. Culture accepts an artist’s relation to tools as being intimate, but this seems over the line when extended to engineering tools. The danger of the hacker is the rejection of physical embodied life for the purity of the machine. (p. 205) “They are like the virtuoso painter or pianist or the sculptor possessed by his or her materials. Hackers too are ‘inhabited’ by their medium. They give themselves over to it and see it as the most complex, the most plastic, the most elusive and challenging of all. To win over computation is to win. Period.” (p. 207)

Science fiction, literature, and hacker culture: evolve around the desire to control and master: imposes “hacker values” of individualism, mastery, and nonsensuality into literary worlds. The game industry has been built around hacker culture. This may go some way into explaining the games we have now….. (p. 222)

Hacker culture is built around an intimate identification with the object. Baudrillard definitely carries through here. The purity of the object is pure seduction. (p. 238)

Turkle discusses Newell and Simon’s generalized problem solver, as a big step in AI. Predictions of the future in AI models for how people think: but only thinking certain types of problems, and only modelling certain types of thinkers. One of the projects is a computational model of Freudian slips. (p. 244)

The Freudian Slip program was evidently made by Don Norman. There is a difference between thinking and feeling behind Freud model here. Machine implies intention, human implies mistake. How could a simulation “make a mistake?” Searle criticizes AI for its lack of intentionality, but the problem here seems to be a lack of involuntary behavior. “Freud saw meaning behind every slip. Sometimes the meaning was obvious, sometimes it had to be traced through complex chains of association and linguistic transformations. Norman’s emphasis on computational representation draws attention not to meaning but to mechanism.” (p. 248)

Again on computational anxiety: “Behind the popular acceptance of the Freudian theory was a nervous, often guilty preoccupation with the self as sexual; behind the widespread interest in computational interpretations is an equally nervous preoccupation with the self as a machine.” (p. 299) A thought on why some models are so powerful and compelling.

Paradox is present in machines and has a power (on Godel’s incompleteness theorem). It makes machines, and the underlying mathematical logic behind them complex enough to reflect the potential for paradox, and gives a further depth to them as human-like. (p. 305)

“Ours has been called a culture of narcissism. The label is apt but can be misleading. It reads colloquially as selfishness and self-absorption. But these images do not capture the anxiety behind our search for mirrors. We are insecure in our understanding of ourselves, and this insecurity breeds a new preoccupation with the question of who we are. We search for ways to see ourselves. The computer is a new mirror, the first psychological machine. Beyond its nature as an analytical engine lies its second nature as an evocative object.” Computations provide a mirror, but reflect the self as a machine. (p. 306)

Reading Info:
Author/EditorTurkle, Sherry
TitleThe Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit
Tagsspecials, digital media, cyberculture
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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