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Life on the Screen

Identity in the Age of the Internet. By Sherry Turkle

Sherry Turkle: Life on the Screen. Identity in the Age of the Internet, Touchstone, New York 1997, ISBN 0-684-83348-4.

19.04.1999 · Reviewed by Christina Teuthorn

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Virtual chemicals are poured from virtual beakers and virtual light bounces off virtual walls in simulated science experiments. Virtual money changes hands in financial transactions. In film and photography, realistic-looking images depict scenes that never took place between people who never met. In cyberspace, a rapidly expanding system of networks links millions of people in new spaces that are changing the way they think, the nature of sexuality, the form of communities - their very identities.

In her groundbreaking study of the psychology of online life, the psychoanalyst Sherry Turkle explores not only what computers do for us, but what they do to us. Life on the Screen shows how the intensive relationships people have with computers change the way they think and feel. In three sections, Turkle describes computers as tools, mirrors, and as gateways to a world through the looking glass of the screen.

It is computer screens where people project themselves into their own dramas, dramas in which they are producer, director, and star. The real and the virtual begin to blend. But people are vulnerable to misusing the screens; they can get lost in virtual worlds. Life in cyberspace is a serious play. The author asks, if we are living life on the screen or life in the screen.

A decade ago, when Turkle first called the computer a second self, indentity-transforming relationships were almost always one-on-one, a person with a machine. This is no longer the case. Today the computer is a new medium on which to project ideas and fantasies. People enter cyberspace as part of the routines of everyday life. They are learning to live in virtual worlds, may find themselves alone as they navigate virtual oceans, unravel virtual mysteries, and engineer virtual skyscrapers, but increasingly others are there as well. New kinds of communities are spreading where members assume personae of their own creation and have fairly intimate relationships with people they may never physically meet.

In MUDs (virtual places created so that many computer users can share and collaborate by typing what they speak and do) words are deeds, and the one can be many and the many can be one, and people can be mistaken with machines. The following dialogue is taken from a MUD:

Robyn says, "Julia, are you human?"
Julia says, "Is the Pope polish?"
Robyn says, "Yes, Julia, but are you human?"
Julia winks at Robyn.
Robyn says, "Julia, are you a computer?"
Julia is offended by Robyn's suggestion.
Robyn says, "Julia, are you a woman?"
Julia says, "I am female."
Robyn says, "And Julia, are you human?"
Julia says, "Not when I'm having my period, Robyn."
Robyn laughs.

Julia is indeed a robot, a program that resides in a computer in Pittsburgh, and is able to chat about hockey, keep track of player's whereabouts, and flirt - a common guest in virtual communities, where the traditional distance between people and machines has become harder to maintain.

According to Turkle, the citizens of MUDs are the pioneers who must be studied to get answers to questions such as: Will cyberspace be a seperate world where people get lost in the surfaces? Or will we learn to see how the real and the virtual can be made permeable, each one enriching and expanding the other?

To find the answers, the clinical psychologist put herself in some of the MUDs, and dipped into the world of Internet Relay Chat (IRC). Due to her special background - Turkle has taught social sciences at MIT for 20 years and practiced as a psychotherapist for more than fifteen - she not only told a fascinating story, but captured how the computer has profoundly affected our lifes. Her thesis: We are moving from a culture of calculation towards a new culture of simulation, because

* we have become accustomed to opaque technology. New computer interfaces model a way of understanding that depends on getting to know a computer through interacting with it, as one might get to know a person or explore a town.

* we have learned to take things at interface value. People are increasingly comfortable with substituting representations of reality for the real.

* we have used our relationships with technology to reflect on the human. What does it mean to be alive? Computer sciences use biological concepts, and human biology is recast in terms of deciphring a code.

* we have thought out the subjective computer. Computers alter our ways of thinking about ourselves and other people.

In the culture-shift Turkle doesn't see a crisis of identity, but new chances: the new "flexible self" is not necessarily a negative one. A more fluid sense of self allows a greater capacity for acknowledging diversity. "We don't have to reject life on the screen, but we don't have to treat it as an alternative life either - the best way to see it is as a place of growth", Turkle writes. "The voyager in virtuality can return to a real world better equipped to understand its artifices."

In the emerging culture of simulation psychoanalytic ideas will become newly relevant. Life online does provide new lenses through which to examine current complexities. In Life on the Screen, Turkle takes advantage of these new lenses, carefully analyzes the present situation, and concludes that it might be psychoanalysts who have the tools to win the struggle against the most complex social problems of our time - problems of community, identity, governance, equity, and values.

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