Session with the Cybershrink:
An Interview with Sherry Turkle

By Herb Brody


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Attempting to unlock her office door, Sherry Turkle fumbles with her keys. She tries one way, then another. After good-naturedly grousing about the recalcitrant lock-so much more troublesome than opening a fresh window on a computer screen-Turkle finally succeeds, and the door swings open to a most uncybernetic office: wicker furniture, riverside view of the Boston skyline, photo of her four-year-old daughter. Surely a computer lurks somewhere in this den of the reigning psycho-guru of cyberspace, but it is tastefully unobtrusive.

Turkle has established herself as the Margaret Mead of the computer culture. Her 1984 book The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit examined the way people interacted with personal computers, just then becoming a common appliance. The book catapulted her into the pantheon of academic superstars: Ms. magazine named her its woman of the year, and Esquire entered her in its "registry of America's new leadership class."

The Brooklyn-born Turkle, with a joint doctorate in sociology and psychology from Harvard University, is a professor in MIT's Program in Science, Technology, and Society. Her interest in concepts of identity predates her fascination with computers; she has written extensively about psychoanalysis, and rarely does she give an interview or lecture without referring in some way to Freud, whose division of human identity into id, ego, and superego presaged the infinitely more diverse personas that people voluntarily assume in their travels through cyberspace.

Her latest book-Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, published in November by Simon and Schuster-assesses the impact of computer networks on the way people think about themselves and their role in society. Turkle, who is a licensed clinical psychologist, lived among the Net natives in order to learn their ways. In the spirit of the new medium, she sometimes donned a disguise-such as a thin veil in the persona of "Doctor Sherry," or even assumed a male persona to experience for herself the Net's fabled gender-bending abilities. Turkle spoke with senior editor Herb Brody not only about the potential of the Net to enhance human experience but about elements of the online phenomenon that disturb her-in particular the fear that young people will succumb to the temptation to leave "real life" behind for the ever-so-much more controllable realm of cyberspace.

TR: When people in real life exhibit multiple distinct personalities, we call them psychotic, or at least sinister: In Robert Louis Stevenson's story, Dr. Jekyll shed his "gentle doctor" identity to liberate the "beast" within him as Mr. Hyde. Why are multiple personas not only accepted on the Net but considered cool?

TURKLE: People who suffer from multiple personality disorder have fragmented selves where different pieces are walled off from the others-often in the service of protection from traumatic memories. People who suffer in this way can have the experience of opening their closet in the morning and not knowing who bought some of the suits inside it. By contrast, people who assume online personas are aware of the lives they have created on the screen. They are playing different aspects of themselves and move fluidly and knowledgeably among them. They are having an experience that encourages them to challenge traditional ways of thinking about healthy selves as single and unitary.

TR: How so?

TURKLE: We live an increasingly multi-roled existence. A woman may wake up as a lover, have breakfast as a mother, and drive to work as a lawyer. A man might be a manager at the office and a nurturer at home. So even without computer networks, people are cycling through different roles and are challenged to think about their identities in terms of multiplicity. The Internet makes this multiplicity more concrete and more urgent.

TR: But the multiple personas people assume online are of a different sort from the roles you've described. In cyberspace a person may be a man sometimes and a woman another, for example.

TURKLE: Yes, cyberspace takes the fluidity of identity that is called for in everyday life and raises it to a higher power: people come to see themselves as the sum of their distributed presence on all the windows they open on the screen. The technical metaphor of cycling through computer windows has become a metaphor for thinking about the relationship among aspects of the self.

TR: So cyberspace is kind of a fun house mirror of our society-essentially reflecting what goes on off-line, but with some exaggeration?

TURKLE: Yes. And in a way, because it does allow for an extravagance of experimentation -with gender switching, age-flexibility, and all the rest made so easy-experiences in cyberspace are challenging us to revisit the question of what we mean by identity.

TR: But in the frenzy of attaining multiple identities, some people seem to be losing the sense that their "real world" self is any more important than their menagerie of online personas. In your book you describe one young man who tells you that for him, real life-RL, as he calls it-doesn't have any special status. It's just another window, along with the ones where he plays roles in a number of virtual communities.

TURKLE: Right. And he said RL is usually not even his best window.

TR: That sounds obsessive. Do you encounter that attitude a lot?

TURKLE: It's not uncommon. But for me, his case is important because it demonstrates how a bright young man who is doing well in school and who has real-life friends can easily go through a period when things are more interesting on the Net than off. This is what leads him to see his online experiences as a "genuine" part of his life. He still had a life off-line, but at the time of our conversation, events there were not going so well. From this perspective, the comment about RL not being his best window seems a bit less sinister.

TR: So retreat into online community is just a phase?

TURKLE: It can be. And in some cases it is not so much a retreat as a first step in developing strengths that can be brought into "real" life. I met a student who had a very bad time in his freshman year in college. His father was an alcoholic, and he was dealing with his own sense of his vulnerability to alcoholism. He coped by taking a job of great responsibility in a virtual community. When I met him the following summer, he was interested in going back to try things out in RL. In the best of cases, positive online experiences leave their mark on both the virtual and the real. And they can change the way people see their possibilities; it can affect self-esteem.

TR: Are social skills acquired online applicable in RL?

TURKLE: They can be. Much of what it takes to get along socially are things like having enough self-esteem to be willing to take risks, to have somebody not like you and yet be able to move on, to be able to take no for an answer, to not see things in black and white. An absence of these skills can make life on the Net seem attractive as a place of escape. But they can be learned by interacting with people within virtual communities. That's why I don't get upset that people, even children, are spending a lot of time online. They may be working through important personal issues in the safety of life on the screen. They may come out the other side having had some experience they're able to use to make their lives more fulfilling.

TR: Can casual relationships formed online survive the transition to the real world, where it's not so easy to hide behind an invented identity?

TURKLE: Sometimes, online relationships do not survive the voyage to the real. But in other cases, they survive very well. I know of real-life marriages between people who met each other in cyberspace. The way such intimacies develop usually follows a rather unsurprising pattern. You're in an online discussion group and you "hear" one of the contributors to the group sound interesting and appealing over a three-month period. You're finally going to want to talk to him or her in person. People want that flesh-and-blood connection. Of course, this can lead to problems too. Someone may begin an online extramarital affair thinking of it as a form of interactive erotic literature, typing provocative sentences back and forth, and then discover that the involvement has become a lot more complicated-something that they want to bring into their real life.

TR: Parents I know are ambivalent about their kids' use of computers. It's wonderful that children have this other world that they can inhabit and master. On the other hand, there seems to be an element of compulsion that's not particularly attractive. There are only so many hours in the day, and time spent on a computer is time not spent with friends, family, playing sports, or just reading.

TURKLE: If the computer is replacing time with peers and parents, that's not good. But if the computer is replacing television, then that may well be an upgrade.

TR: Do you worry that some people-children in particular-might be becoming addicted to computers?

TURKLE: It's not an addiction like with cocaine, where everyone on it develops a physical dependency, which is never good. When people respond to the holding power of computers, the situation is far more complex. A person can use computers in different ways at different times, and for different developmental tasks. A six-year-old who uses a computer, for example, may be working on an issue of mastery. A year later he may have shifted his attention to baseball cards. Both are developmentally appropriate, and there's little reason to think that mastery of the online world is much different from mastery of box scores in baseball. This is especially true now that kids can share their experiences online in much the same way that they can share their interest in baseball cards. In the same sense, computer programming is not that much different from, say, chess.

Palliative for a Vulnerable Time

TR: Many of the people you study are students attending college-traditionally a time when people leap into political activity. Are these young adults using the Net to try to change the world?

TURKLE: As someone whose political sensibilities were developed in the 1960s, I'm sorry to say that I see some evidence that things are not going in that direction. I talked with one young man of 22 or 23, who told me how involved he is in political activity within one of the Internet's virtual worlds-a multi-user domain (or MUD) where people create characters and build their own virtual living and working spaces as a backdrop for their online social lives. He just loved the grassroots feel of the involvement. Since this was right before the last congressional elections, and some key seats in his home state were up for grabs, I said, well-what about real-life politics? He said no, that was of no interest to him: politicians were all cynics and liars. Part of me wanted to cry.

TR: Why do you find that so disturbing?

TURKLE: I hear many of the people I interview expressing a genuine confusion, a sense of impotence, about how to connect to the political system. In cyberspace, they feel they know how to connect, how to make things happen. This is disturbing because as of now, most of the community life in MUDs and other virtual places has little effect in the real world-these online societies essentially disappear when you turn off your computer. It would be exciting to see online communities used more to address real-world social crises such as those around the environment, health, drugs, and education. This is starting to happen; I would like to see more of it. Online activists are learning a great deal as they build virtual worlds -it's like thousands of social experiments being conducted simultaneously, all over the world. I would like to see some of the knowledge gained from these efforts used to improve our off-line communities.

TR: Why do you think some young people are withdrawing from real political involvement and jumping instead into cyberspace?

TURKLE: For some people I interviewed who are in their twenties, cyberspace offers them a status that RL does not. These people grew up in middle class families, went to college, and many feel that they are slipping out of the middle class. They work jobs in fast food or sales, most share apartments, some have moved back to live with parents. They're not living in the way they were brought up to think somebody with a college education would live.

TR: But in cyberspace, they have higher status?

TURKLE: Right. In cyberspace they feel that they have rejoined the middle class. They are spending time with people whose interests and cultural background they recognize. They feel at home and in a political environment where they can make a difference. As one person put it, "I have more stuff on the MUD than off it," meaning that in her virtual community, she was able to build and furnish her own "room." Meanwhile, the real-world culture is supporting this notion with the hype that computers are sexy, that cyberspace is where it's happening. But I think that some of this hype can encourage a notion that what we do to the physical environment, say, doesn't count because we're creating a new environment in cyberspace. You don't want to lose a sense of urgency about the state of your city because you feel you have this other ready alternative. Yet, this is what I pick up in the attitudes of many cyber-enthusiasts I speak to.

TR: That would seem to be a self-fulfilling prophecy-as people withdraw from the real world, their talents are not available to solve our real problems. But they are available in cyberspace, which then becomes a more and more attractive option.

TURKLE: Yes. As a society, we are at a particularly vulnerable point. There is a tremendous amount of insecurity about what kinds of jobs we are going to have and where they will be. How are we going to address the serious problems facing our children: drugs, violence, deteriorating education? How are we going to address problems of the environment and of cities and of health care? Do we have the political will to attempt to do all of these things? The challenges seem overwhelming. So people are very susceptible now to the notion that there's a better place-somewhere over the rainbow, way up high, where there isn't any trouble. Of course, that place is the online world. In other words, our confusion and insecurity make us want to believe that there is a technological alternative.

Having It All

TR: Why do you think there's been a recent backlash against the Internet, with the publication of critical books and articles?

TURKLE: There are several reasons. Partly it is opportunistic-after a lot of hype, people sense that it's the right time in the news cycle to present a contrary point of view. Also, the same frustrations and the same desire for an easy fix that leads people to the safety of the Internet leads people to complain about it rather than other things. We don't know what to do about violence or about the poor quality of education in many schools. We don't know how to bring families back together. It's easy to blame technology for our ills. So you see the widespread fantasy that what's causing moral decay in America is online pornography. People are spending a lot of political capital making waves about the urgency of cleaning up the Internet. I think that energy might be better spent elsewhere.

TR: Pornography on the Net doesn't overly concern you?

TURKLE: Do I want my four year old sitting there scrolling through filthy pictures? Of course not. But I would rather not interfere with free speech and I prefer to keep the monitoring of children as something that gets done by parents in the home rather than have government agencies policing cyberspace. Yes, there is pornography online. But we should be able to recognize that it is a displacement of our social anxieties to be focusing disproportionately on cyberporn as a pressing problem.

TR: Many critics seem turned off by how shallow the Internet is, both in its informational content and in the kind of relationships it fosters.

TURKLE: When a new technology is introduced, people respond by complaining that it's not as good as what we have had before. But it is hard to argue that online information doesn't compete favorably with what television offers. And online communication is in many ways a return to print-to reading and writing. In any case, it has usually worked out that the introduction of a new medium does not displace the old in any simple sense. Television didn't kill movies, and neither did video games.

TR: So instead we end up with everything.

TURKLE: Yes-that seems to be a general pattern. I do not believe that people are going to choose between relationships in cyberspace and face-to-face relationships. I think that people are going to have all kinds. It's not going to be one or the other. What I'm interested in-psychologically, socially, and politically-is making real life more permeable to cyberspace and cyberspace more permeable to real life. We need to think of ways to make the resources that are online have a positive impact on real life.

TR: But such "permeability"could come at a cost. For instance, if kids pursue more education through the Net and less through schools with other kids, won't they miss much of the socialization that schools have traditionally provided?

TURKLE: Well, in that sense the advent of a new technology leads us to ask what it is we most value in our way of life. Do we care, for example, about public schools? Because if the schools continue to deteriorate, and pose physical dangers, and an online alternative arises, then who could blame parents for keeping their kids home and having them just log on instead? It's a rational choice. Now if you don't like that, if you think that kids ought to be getting an education with other children, then you have to be willing to pay for it. And that will mean investing public money to make the schools better and safer. Online possibilities are forcing us to examine what we really care about. They are serving as a kind of a wake-up call.

Not All Boys and Their Toys

TR: Has the rise of the Internet made the computer culture more female-friendly?

TURKLE: Definitely. Computer technology is moving in a direction that makes it easier for women to see it as something that is culturally theirs. We're hearing a lot less of that stuff about girls having "computer phobia," which I never thought was a good way to explain what was going on.

TR: You don't think girls have tended to be more apprehensive than boys about using computers?

TURKLE: Maybe they were at one time, but the label "phobia" does not correctly describe the phenomenon and does not help girls get over what some of them feel, which is much more like computer reticence. Girls weren't afraid of computers, but many felt that dealing with a computer was just not very girl-like. The computer was culturally constructed as male, just as much of technology was. When I was a girl, I once wanted to build a crystal radio. My mother, usually very encouraging, said no, don't touch it, you'll get a shock. It wasn't that I didn't want to build it-I wasn't phobic. But somehow, this just wasn't what girls did. I became reticent about such things.

Traditionally, the computer culture has carried many associations that tended to alienate girls-I mean, if you made a mistake, the computer asked you if you wanted to "abort" or "execute" or "kill." Those words convey images that just didn't appeal to a girl. Also, computers took you away from people.

TR: But the Internet is making the computer more of a social tool?

TURKLE: Yes-using computers today tends not to involve conquest metaphors or isolation from other human beings. Interfaces encourage you to manipulate them, to play with objects on the screen as though they were tangible entities, like elements of a collage. And the Net is all about chatting with people, being with people. Women who get onto the Net are often turned off by the flaming and the ad hominem rudeness they see. But they find places on the Net where this is not the case, and when they don't find them, they can create them. The Net desperately needs more of the characteristics that in our culture have been associated with women-skills such as collaboration and diplomacy. And many online communities are not only civil but actively encourage friendships and networking-it's not all boys and their toys.

TR: Still, the Net remains mostly male, doesn't it?

TURKLE: Women are present on the Net in greater and greater numbers. But I am often struck by the preponderance of messages that seem to come from men, even in places where there are many women around. Women tend to be less visible than men because when confronted with a rowdy group-flame session, women will move their conversations to private e-mail.

TR: Is there some way that women are using the Net more than men are?

TURKLE: Many women are getting access to the Internet in order to keep in touch with their families. For example, a parent with kids at college can use the Net to communicate with them. Parents know that their kids are logging on every day to get their e-mail. They're not going to resent an e-mail message from mom the way they might resent a badly timed phone call. A channel of communication that wasn't there before is opening.

TR: Does this new channel lead to new kinds of interactions?

TURKLE: Yes. A parent can send e-mail to a child away at college, saying, you know, it's 3 o'clock in the morning, I couldn't sleep, I was watching an old movie, I just thought I'd send you a note. In one case when this happened, the child, a freshman at college, responded immediately to a note from his mother and told her that he was up too-studying for a chemistry exam. The mother wrote right back, I wish you luck.The son appreciated the nurturance, something that he would not have permitted himself if he had had to call home. So all of a sudden you have an interaction that gratifies both people that never would have happened.

TR: So for many women, the Internet is a way to strengthen family ties?

TURKLE: Yes. Of course, the appeal of cyberspace for communication with family also draws in many men as well. And once they're in touch with their kids, why shouldn't they join a newsgroup about investments?

The Peril of the Black Box

TR: Time was, effective use of a computer required at least a basic understanding of how the machine worked. One benefit of more advanced computers is that this is no longer the case-people can now control a powerful technology without knowing much of anything about how it operates. What are the consequences of relying on a technology that is so opaque?

TURKLE: I'm very concerned that technology may be fostering a kind of intellectual passivity, feeding into a cultural acceptance of a lack of understanding of how a lot of things work. I'm troubled by people's sense that this is all basically magic. I don't think people should have no idea how computer technology works. And increasingly, people have no idea. I interviewed one man who said that when BMW started using microchips in its cars, he lost interest in them although he had been an avid enthusiast. For him, the cars had become opaque. He enjoyed transparent technology because it made him feel more empowered to understand other things in his world. I have a lot of sympathy for his perspective.

TR: Cars that use computer chips need less maintenance and run better. A Macintosh is usable by millions more people than a DOS or Unix computer. Aren't such benefits worth the loss of "transparency"?

TURKLE: But some undesirable things may go along with this movement. When people deal every day with objects that are powerful but impenetrably complex, it can lead to feelings of impotence. Or, alternatively, to feelings of unreasonable power and retreat to radical oversimplifications. We need to be attentive to the social and psychological impact of a technology that encourages you to think that all you need to do is click, click. Double click and make public education go away. Double click and make taxes go away. Double click-three strikes and you're out and solve the crime problem. As a society, we're doing a lot of double clicking. And I think it is not a bad thing for us to get a better understand-ing of how this mentality might be flowing out of the habits of thought encouraged by our technology.

TR: All in all, are you an optimist or pessimist about the effects of the computer on the human psyche?

TURKLE: I think that computers offer dramatic new possibilities for personal growth-for developing personal senses of mastery, for forming new kinds of relationships, and for communicating with friends and family all over the world in immediate, even intimate ways. But I don't like thinking of things in terms of optimism or pessimism because it makes it sound as though one gets to take bets on whether the technology is going to have one kind of effect or another. I think that a lot of the effect of computers and the Internet is going to depend on what people do with it. We have to see ourselves as in a position to profoundly affect the outcome of how things are going to go. Hyping or bashing technology puts the emphasis on the power of the technology. I'm trying to put the spotlight on people, and the many human choices we face as we try to assimilate this technology.

Ultimately, there is a limit to the sorts of satisfactions that people can have online. We live in our bodies. We are terrestrial. We are physical as well as mental beings-we are cerebral, cognitive, and emotional. My optimism comes from believing that people are going to find ways to use life on the screen to express all these sides of themselves.


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