Written in 1995, Sherry Turkle’s Life on the Screen is a prescient depiction and revelation of the way human beings interact with the machine – in particular the Internet, a nascent technology that opened a box of millions of possibilities at that time. Backdropped with the postmodernist perspective, Turkle provides readers with an insightful study on cyber culture based on abundant observations and interviews of people’s experiences online. The focus of her book is how people continuingly construct and reconstruct their identities in the computer-mediated virtual reality, which provides a guide to decipher people’s online behaviors.
Although Turkle had been exposed to postmodernist thoughts as early as the 1970s, she couldn’t connect herself to those abstract theories of postmodernism until she started to reflect on her new life on the screen, and thus the Internet to her, is the “technology that is bringing postmodernism down to earth” (p. 268).
The first part of the book explicates the postmodernist thoughts through the transition of cultural aesthetics from the modernism to postmodernism. From author’s experience in programing, she introduces to readers the past dominating fashion of human-machine interaction – “the modernist computational aesthetic” (p. 18), which images the computer as a calculator. Influenced by modernist thoughts, old-school teachers consider programing as a hard, lineal, top-down process, where the underlying rules are always clear and logical. In contrast, the postmodernism rejects the existence of unitary rules, and embraces characteristics of opaque, fluidity, and multicity (p. 17). Turkle thinks the transition from modernism to postmodernism was projected by the popularity of Macintosh operating system over IBM’s “transparent” structure, suggesting that the search for depth and mechanism is futile (p. 36), thus encouraging users to focus on the “interface value” of shifting surfaces. In this sense, the decentralized transition, on which will be elaborated in following chapters was echoed by a number of disciplines where many conceptual structures were challenged and redefined.
The second part of this book poses the question – to what extent people consider computers are alive? Despite the clear boundary of “artificial” and “real” in human consciousness, many adults follow essentially the same path as children when they talk about human beings in relation to these new machines – they saw the computer as a psychological object (p. 82), due to its opacity and responsiveness. Yet, it took a long time for people to comfortably term with the idea of AI (Artificial Intelligence). Turkle chronicles an enduring tension in the human response to “thinking machines”: many people conceded the program’s competency or stressed the so-call “human intelligence” when confronted by a machine that exhibited aspects of intelligence; or they just reiterated in romanticism, emphasizing the “humanity” lacking in the artificial intelligence. However, with the evolving technologies and proliferation of AI application, people who used to resist the notion of machine intelligence found different paths to acclimate to, naturalize, and accept this idea.
According to Turkle, people’s concern about AI not only fell on the boundary between ideas about minds and machines, but also on the boundary between “ideas about minds and ideas about machines” (p. 125). The radical change in philosophy of artificial intelligence resonated with the transition from modernism to postmodernism. Unlike the modernist structures, the postmodernist perceptron’s intelligence is not pre-programmed into it, but develops out of the interactions among agents. Simply put, the computer would not have to be taught all necessary knowledge in advance, but could learn from the experience in practice. The triumph of emergent AI, which is built on a decentralized model, is indicative of its consistency with a zeitgeist of decentered and emergent mind as well as “multiple subjectivities and postmodern selves” (p. 124). Hence, the final portion of the book extends the discussion of postmodernism to an intrapersonal level, examining how computer-mediated environments influence our sense of the self.
In the same vein of postmodernism, the contemporary cognitive science considers the human brain as a group of interacting, independent agents. Similarly, the construction of a unitary self, according to Turkle is no more than an illusion (p. 14). Within an individual, independent agents of “selves” are cycling in different occasions in a bottom-up, distributed, parallel, and emergent collection of self-identity. In real life, people nevertheless are hugely restricted by a series of implicit social expectations and norms, so their personae are relatively stable and well defined. However, people essentially are far from satisfaction about the real-life stage, as an interviewee said that she felt her world too narrow to allow her to manifest certain aspects of the person she felt herself to be (p. 185). Many cases aptly illustrate the huge gap between different aspects of human personality. My research interest, online vigilantism is a good example where thousands of ordinary people perform aggressively, which is supposed to form a huge contrast against their action in real life. Analogous to the postmodernist inspiration, people’s online exploration and experience through interaction among different agents of selves can help them to unearth and understand their underlying selves and thus shape their identities. In cases of vigilantism, people’s reactions towards transgressions are not pre-designed, but spontaneously provoked. According to Turkle, the Internet featured anonymity and virtuality (p. 209), provides people with an unlimited possibility to create their online personae freely for self-expression, leading to a more authentic feeling when decked out in an array of virtual masks.
This idea of different personae online sheds light on the Internet vigilantism, where people’s vigilantic behavior is supposed to be evoked and intensified by the pseudo-environment afforded by the Internet. Specifically, the model of how different “selves” work is applicable to understand the mindsets of online vigilantes. In the online environment, people are easily instigated by what they perceive as transgressions. Similar to the text-based MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons), the news that could possibly incite people is mostly carried by languages, or symbols. The cyberspace is a world of exchanges of symbols. In a notorious virtual rape in MUD, one player used his computer skills to seize a female character and forced her to a violent sexual encounter, which was against the will of the player behind it (Dibbell, 1993). Although this episode is no more than words, in this virtual text-based world, words are deeds (p. 15). By the same token, all the evil intentions carried by language and symbols on the Internet are just as harmful as physical aggressions in the reality. Also, when the vigilant and monitoring “self” interacts with the symbol indicating egregious conduct, a latent reaction towards a certain event could be elicited.
In cases of online vigilantism, people’s punitive and vengeful personae come to stand in the spotlight. In the real life, the right to punish others is not a right exercised by ordinary citizens. They can only indirectly cast their influence on the penalties of offenders. Nonetheless, without the social restriction, people on the Internet feel freer to play the role of “punisher,” regardless the “aggressiveness” and “appropriateness” in this persona. People thereby can learn to see theirselves as plugged-in “technobodies” (p. 177), and further redescribe politics and economy life in a language that is resonant with particular machine intelligence.
However, as a paradigmatic work of American cultural studies, Turkle successfully unfolds a subculture characterized by flexibility, fluidity, and decentralization, with which she believes “may help us to achieve a vision of multiple but integrated identity whose flexibility, resilience, and capacity for joy comes from having access to our many selves (pp. 268-269). On the other hand, she points out the possibility that “people can get lost in virtual worlds,” which in my opinion, is exactly the flaw in this book that she herself might get lost in the postmodernist cyber culture, and neglect the outside world. The “self” people presented online is not only the product of the self-transformation process on the Internet, but also a representation and reflection of the experience in real life. The modernism that abandoned by Turkle is nevertheless a perfect representation for the real world, in a sense, governed by the political, economic, legal, and social infrastructures. Moreover, the real world is never a lawless place, nor is the seemingly isolated cyberspace a complete private realm. In fact, the online spaces presented by convergent technologies are hybrid public and private spaces (Papacharissi, 2010, p. 128). In this space, all the “craziest reveries” presented in different personae, including vigilantic behavior, cyber sex, and cyber bullying are hardly immune or absolved from social norms or ethical judgment. Only by recognizing the base of the social realities can people prevent their cognition from being reduced to the observation of superficial, abstract, isolated appearances. The same is applicable to the book where most evidence is scattered interviews, which is in need of further logical reasoning.
After all, without an integrated unitary self of rationality, people should be aware of the unintended and unpredicted consequences resulted from the unregulated online behavior. Still, with copious observation and penetrating insights, this is a groundbreaking work guiding us towards the introspection of human being in a postmodernist manner.
Dibbell, J. (1993, December). A Rape in Cyberspace. The Village Voice. Retrieved from http://www.juliandibbell.com/articles/a-rape-in-cyberspace/
Papacharissi, Z. A. (2010). A Private Sphere: Democracy in a Digital Age. Cambrige, UK: Wiley. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=Ou3m1kUmgF8C
Turkle, S. (1995). Life on the Screen (p. 347). New York, NY: Simon & Schuster. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=auXlqr6b2ZUC