Sherry Turkle Sees e-Life at the Crossroads

Magazine Issue
January/February 2011

Sherry Turkle introduces her 1995 book, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, with a quote from a poem by Walt Whitman: “There was a child went forth every day, / And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became.” For Turkle, an ethnographically trained sociologist and psychologist (the founding director of MIT’s Initiative on Technology and Self), Whitman was conveying a profound truth: “We make our objects and our objects make us,” as she’s said. In our high-tech, computer-obsessed age, Turkle’s key mission has become to unravel “how our increasingly intimate relationship with technology . . . changes the way we see ourselves as people. It isn’t so much what technology is doing for us, but what it’s doing to us.” More and more, as Turkle sees it, we’re the machine, and the machine is us.

Turkle has spent the last 30 years studying what our machines have come to mean to us, and how they’re altering—sometimes radically—our understanding and experience of intimacy, privacy, relationship, personal identity, even our sense of what we consider “reality” and “virtual reality”—which one is the “real” reality? Few would want to return to the primitive B.C. era (before computer): our electronic stuff is just too useful, too pleasurable, too seductive. But that seductiveness incurs significant costs, which we’ve barely begun to appreciate.

In her books, particularly The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit (1985), Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (1995), and the just-published Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Turkle has ventured into the deep heart of what she calls “a forbidden experiment, using ourselves as subjects with no controls.” Although hundreds of millions of people in all parts of the globe are taking part in this experiment, they’re largely unwitting participants.

Turkle’s own background was certainly not that of a classic “techie”—no building contraptions from wires, boxes, and transistors in her dorm room. In fact, the dominant technology of her 1950s childhood in Brooklyn was television, then a distinctly family-friendly, relationship-sustaining medium. Unlike computers and other digital devices, which isolate people in their own virtual worlds, television in the ’50s and ’60s was, says Turkle, “the family hearth”: people gathered around it the way their ancestors sat companionably around the fire several thousand years ago. “We didn’t just watch television. We commented about the television; we talked back to the television; we talked to each other through the television; and discussed what was on the television. It was a very interactive, collaborative experience; a very communitarian experience. We were as involved with each other as with the television.”

In 1965, she left her cozy, ethnic neighborhood—in effect her “home village”—for the high-powered, intellectually and culturally intense world of Radcliffe College, the “Harvard Annex” for women (now wholly merged with Harvard). After graduating, she began graduate school at Harvard, studying sociology and personality psychology. She’d go on to do clinical coursework and internships and become licensed as a clinical psychologist.

In 1977, Turkle began teaching psychology at MIT, where computers were of course a large part of the scene and her colleagues were already using computer metaphors (“bits,” “bytes,” “programming,” “clearing buffer,” “bugging”) to talk about the human mind. The psychologist in Turkle, trained to listen to every word for meanings and significations that might not be immediately obvious—her first psychology course at MIT covered the subject of Freudian slips!—realized that people weren’t just talking about computers as useful, interesting tools. They were talking about something deeply important to them, something that was far more emotionally evocative than, say, a washing machine or even a vintage 1958 red Corvette. It was the beginning of a new era, in which machines have become increasingly identified with the self.

Within a few years, she noticed that even children in grade school were speaking like MIT computer romantics about their own machines. “When you program a computer, there’s a little piece of your mind, and now it’s a little piece of the computer’s mind,” one sixth-grade student told her during this period. The computer already was, says Turkle, “between a machine and a mind.” But that little girl had been taught enough basic programming skills to create the rules for a workable program herself. Like driving a car, programming a computer kept her in the “driver’s seat,” in charge of the machine’s operations, and maintained the ancient distinction (though a little more tenuous) between mind and machine, person and tool. The computer might enable her to express her mind in an almost magical way, but it hadn’t yet become an extension of her mind: it was still a “second” self, which hadn’t (yet) usurped the first.

By the mid-’90s, when Turkle published Life on the Screen, however, almost nobody who wasn’t a computer expert had any idea what went on inside a computer, much less how to program one. At the same time, the now-mysterious computer, increasingly networked with other computers connecting people around the world, was an open portal to vast possibilities, allowing people to play with their own, and others’ identity. The computer was both “opaque” and interactive: you couldn’t see beyond its screen face into its “brain,” and you couldn’t understand how to manipulate it to do your bidding, but you could respond to the programs already there, and they could respond to you. These devices had begun to look and act less like machines than “real” people.

But while the possibilities for creating new identities—many different identities at once, each with distinct names, faces, bodies, back-stories—were endlessly seductive and engaging (not to mention time-consuming), the process could sometimes spin out of control. Turkle recalls how creepily disconcerting it was to discover someone online advertising him/herself as “Dr. Sherry,” a virtual persona who seemed uncannily like “Sherry Turkle.” Still, for all her caveats about the potential downsides to the computer, she viewed the ability to play with identity as liberating, even therapeutic, because people could imagine for themselves different, more creative and hopeful stories than the tired, restrictive narratives they’d been handed by family and society.

In her latest book, Alone Together, she strikes a more somber note as she contemplates the Next Big Thing in cybernetic technology, what she calls “the robotic moment.” What’s shocking isn’t that robots are increasingly being used as ersatz caretakers, pets, friends, confidants, even sexual and romantic partners, but that so many of us, she’s discovered, welcome them, emotionally and philosophically. Robots, many apparently feel, are often even better than people—more accessible, dependable, reassuring, and friendly; never demanding, judgmental, or argumentative—and they don’t die. So, many of us are beginning to wonder, what impact will this, or any of our deepening infatuations with all things cyber, have on our ability to connect face-to-face with each other, in real time? Does virtual intimacy degrade our experience of the other kind and, indeed, of all encounters, of any kind?

Questions like these are increasingly being raised as we collectively wonder just exactly what we’ve wrought in the Digital Age. But what distinguishes Turkle from other thinkers and researchers is both her clinical background and her ability to give language to phenomena that still seem formless and inchoate to us. In articulating exactly how the Internet is transforming our culture, she manages to avoid both extreme alarmism and cyber-boosterism, while giving us what anthropologists call a “thick description” of both the human behavior and the rich, complex social context in which it occurs. The result is that her work regularly offers both a shock of recognition and an immediate sense of illumination: “Yes, that’s exactly the way it is, and now I understand it better.” For therapists especially, her work is invaluable. Clients bring into sessions their experiences with many significant life “presences”—family of origin, partner, children, friends, pet dogs and cats. Increasingly, some of their most significant personal experiences occur with and through their various gadgets. Woe to the therapist who neglects these very, very “significant others.”

In the interview that follows with Networker editor Rich Simon, Turkle lays out some of the themes that she’ll develop further as the keynote speaker at the upcoming 2011 Networker Symposium.

PN: Computers have become so much a part of our lives that it’s almost impossible to imagine life before they came along. Let’s start with your taking us back to the very earliest stages of your research. What first stood out for you back then about how people regarded their computers?

ST: My first book, The Second Self, written back in 1984, was really about the one-on-one connection that people were then developing with their computers, before the full onset of the networked Internet culture. It’s hard to believe this now, but back when I first started studying technology, people still weren’t sure what to do with computers. We used to have meetings at MIT in which people would say, “OK, what are we going to do with them? ” I remember somebody suggesting that computers might serve as good calendars, and somebody else scoffed at that idea because we already had datebooks that made perfectly good calendars—after all, you could just easily flip through it and get a sense of your week, your month, your entire year. I mean people went on and on about the perfection of the datebook and how you wouldn’t want to use computers for this. Of course, today, we can’t stop thinking of things we want our computers to do. We upload every detail of our lives, store our life stories in photos, blog our innermost thoughts to the entire world on them. But 30 years ago, all that was literally unimaginable.

PN: So what did the people you hung out with at that time think computers were good for?

ST: Part for mathematical computations, scientific uses, games, and, of course, doing your taxes.

PN: Clearly a lot has changed.

ST: And I have to admit that in my early books, which were very upbeat about all the possibilities of computers, I didn’t anticipate some of the problems with our anthropomorphic connection with technology. I didn’t foresee the intensity of the bond people would form with the Internet and all the new possibilities for adapting technology that it created. Now we’re even beginning to develop computerized robots that people can relate to as if they were friends, programmed to take the initiative and say, “I love you, let’s hang!” (laughs)—making us feel that they’re somehow “human” and that they “care” for us, even though they’re still machines.

Many people may still think of this as science fiction, but there have been huge advances in designing robots that give the illusion that there’s somebody home. They can gesture and push Darwinian buttons—eye contact and saying a person’s name—that make people feel that these machines are “intelligent.” When it comes to connectivity with robots, we’re extremely cheap dates. But what makes humans special is that we have a life cycle. We have desires for sexuality and love, we have a story, and we eventually have to consider what it means to lose the people we love and to face our own ends. All those are things that machines don’t face, don’t consider. But there’s beginning to be talk about using robots to care for the elderly, for example. But if you delegate the care of your mother to a robot that has no idea that she exists, how does that coarsen the quality of human connection?

PN: What’s happened between the upbeat book you wrote in the mid-1990s, Life on the Screen, and your attitude today?

ST: I wrote Life on the Screen when people were just beginning to go online to experiment with new identities—men could play women, women could play men, and in this experimentation with identity, they’d learn more about themselves. I felt hopeful about the self-reflection that this might provoke. Now, I face a different environment. What dominates now is a world of always-on mobile connection. Now, the research that confronts us is how despite its seductions, multitasking degrades people’s performance on just about all dimensions. People may get a shot of dopamine that makes them temporarily feel great, but there’s no substitute for giving a task your full attention. And that’s the big issue with technology today: the degree to which fewer and fewer things are getting our undivided attention. Some of the most poignant interviews in my new book are with children saying, “I want my parents’ full attention. I don’t want my mother picking me up at school while looking at her BlackBerry. My father used to watch football with me. Now he watches the game but is scrolling through his messages until there is a big play. I feel less with him.”

Then there’s the increasing awareness of privacy issues. What if the Internet never forgets? Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, is on record as saying that he thinks that by 2021, everyone will need to change their name because Google won’t be able to protect their privacy and nobody will want to be accountable for their Internet “histories.” In 1995, I wasn’t focused on the fact that everything you did could potentially be recorded and traced back to you. I didn’t explore these privacy issues back then. And I didn’t consider that many people might become so fascinated by their lives in virtual worlds that they wouldn’t get out and have an actual life!

PN: So your new book has a much more cautionary tone.

ST: I think what’s at stake are some of the fundamental notions we have about personal identity and relationship that have developed over the past 200 years. Our notions of being in love and being an individual and being autonomous and separating and growing up and growing into adulthood are deeply enmeshed with our ideas about the importance of having privacy—of having a bounded self and a circle of privacy in our lives. These ideas, which are the mainstays of our emotional and political culture, are now being challenged. We’re losing the technical infrastructure for them. So I’m just saying, before we go much further, let’s look at how technology is changing us, and let’s have a conversation about what those changes may mean for all of us.

PN: So where do therapists fit into all this?

ST: Part of my mission is to ask therapists to think about how the Internet and the other new communication technologies are impacting all of us. I want them to explore with their clients, particularly their adolescent clients, what they’re doing online. And I think that’s beginning to happen today. Just as no psychotherapist would be comfortable not knowing about a patient’s family relationships, today, therapists are starting to ask about their patients’ relationship with the online world.

PN: Now it seems there are two distinct faces of the Internet. Earlier on, it was the old idea of the “Information Superhighway” that no one talks about anymore—it was the Internet as mainly a limitless source of information. Then came Web 2.0 and the networked world, where, through social media, through things like first MySpace and then Facebook, you have access to people from your past and people who share your interests in a way that no one had ever really imagined before. It’s become possible to have multiple tribal identities, depending on where you want to hang out on the web.

In the last couple of years, I think we’ve crossed some threshold, even among therapists, who must be one of the most technophobic groups in the culture. Not a day goes by that I don’t get an invitation to “friend” someone on Facebook. And even an old-school, late-adopter like me has now fallen in love with technology. About six months ago, I finally bought an iPod, and my life hasn’t been the same since.

ST: What do you listen to?

PN: First of all, I never listen to music—it’s mainly interviews and the kind of loose, spontaneous conversations that are the hallmark of podcasting. It’s a whole new relational world for me. I discovered that just about every magazine I read broadcasts free podcasts that I can download on iTunes. Suddenly I feel like I’m on personal terms with the best talkers and smartest minds in the world—although it may be a bit like the robots and the anthropomorphism that you were talking about a while ago.

Now I feel like I actually know all sorts of people whose thoughts I’d previously only encountered on the page. It’s as if I suddenly have an entirely different relationship to the New Yorker, for example, whose staff of writers now regularly talk directly to me—or so it seems. I think, like lots of people, I find myself using the podcasts to find my tribe, people who connect me to a community of like-minded people whom I could never discover otherwise. My iPod has become a kind of lifeline for me. I probably spend more time listening to my iPod than I do to just about anybody else in my life besides my wife—although sometimes she might disagree with that.

ST: Well that’s why I was first going to call my book “The Intimate Machine.”

PN: You say that your goal in writing this book is to start a conversation about the impact of technology on our lives. In your mind, what role do psychotherapists play in having that kind of national conversation?

ST: First of all, if you’re seeing kids in therapy, have them bring in their laptops and talk to you about how they use the web. Let them be your guide. Many kids have websites. Ask to see them. Have the children show you their avatars, if they’re willing. What exactly are their avatars doing? What does that mean? Give it a rest with the blocks and the houses; go on Second Life with the child. Bring as much of this online life as you can into the consulting room. That’s the first thing.

PN: So, you’re saying to therapists: Begin with curiosity. Let your clients talk to you about the role technology plays in their lives.

ST: Right. Listen when the couples in therapy with you mention that they’re not talking directly with each other. Ask how they actually spend their time together. What happens during dinner? Do they text each other instead of talking—you’d be surprised how many people do that. So I’ll say, “Oh, you text each other. How is that working out?” Then I might start talking about the difference between communication and connection. Because that’s what people are doing; they’re texting each other in a relationship.

Now I have nothing against texting. That’s how my daughter and I communicate a lot of the time. I love texting. I never take a position against any of it. But there are some things you can’t talk about very well in texting. A mother can’t talk with a daughter about menstruating in a text—”Are you having terrible cramps?” Well, you know, that’s hard in a text! Not every kind of communication medium is good for everything, and now we have so many.

I think therapists are in a good position to be in the forefront of negotiating our relationship with technology. As therapists, we know a little bit about narcissism, in whatever professional language you use. You know that when people treat other people as though they’re things, there’s trouble! But we live in a technological world that’s often set up so we treat each other like things. It’s as if we need a package warning for technology that says, “Beware of treating people like things.”

PN: A couple of years ago, we devoted an issue to the idea that psychotherapy was one of the last bastions of the face-to-face human encounter.

ST: That may be, but I must say that I cannot believe the number of therapists who are Skyping and telephoning as a regular practice, even if they could meet with clients face to face. Of course, in an emergency, if your patient is in China, that may happen. I think they need to ask themselves, “What am I missing by not having that body in the room with me? Don’t pretend to yourself that talking on Skype is the same as being face to face.

When I have office hours by Skype with students, I know the difference. When they come into my office, the room is set up to make the conversation work in the best way possible. They can sit wherever they want, they can have as much distance between me and them as they like. They tell me what’s on their minds; we talk. If they don’t understand how to complete their paper, we go online and look at their paper. We talk about why they can’t do the paper. If I’m tired or ill and I’m truly not able to come into the office, I can say, “Let’s just Skype,” but I know that this will be a different experience for everyone.

I’m not saying, “Never do therapy over Skype!” I’m saying look closely at what you’re losing and what you may be gaining by doing it one way or the other. So my message to therapists is that technology raises all kinds of complicated issues, both in the consulting room and outside it. And before we go much further down the road we’re traveling, let’s think through what those issues are and what we want to do about them.

PN: Unlike global warming, we have time to work this out?

ST: Yes, unlike global warming, we have time to figure it out. The robots aren’t coming to take care of our parents unless we buy the robots. You have more than 15 minutes to make that decision. Now is the time to talk about it. But I don’t think these conversations are happening as much as they should, and I hope the book makes the difference.

Rich Simon

Richard Simon, PhD, founded Psychotherapy Networker and served as the editor for more than 40 years. He received every major magazine industry honor, including the National Magazine Award. Rich passed away November 2020, and we honor his memory and contributions to the field every day. 

Mary Sykes Wylie

Mary Sykes Wylie, PhD, is a former senior editor of the Psychotherapy Networker.