My space or yours?

Peter Campbell

  • Life on the Screen by Sherry Turkle
    Weidenfeld, 250 pp, £18.99, April 1996, ISBN 0 297 81514 8

In the world which is entered by way of the computer people are often not what they seem; they may hide behind their screens and offer false descriptions of themselves. The boundaries between truth and fiction are hard to police in cyberspace – it could have been expressly made for tricksters, liars and fantasists. The moral anxiety this generates is as ancient as Plato’s fear of poetry, and as modern as animadversions on the corrupting power of comics and television. The liberal assumption is that we need not fear the virtual reality created by computers. We are good at distinguishing what is real from what is not: indeed, dealing with ‘what ifs’ is one of our gifts. But, some argue, maybe computers are different. Is it not possible for them to engross people in a way print, television and the telephone do not? Even if we believe that it is good for us to be deeply engrossed, it is also, the argument goes, liable to change us. Spend hours every day pretending to be someone else, for example, and your sense of identity will be affected.

Sherry Turkle believes that computers have indeed had a significant effect on those who use them. She says that ‘we come to see ourselves differently as we catch sight of our image in the mirror of the machine.’ She thinks ‘we are learning to live in virtual worlds’ and that ‘a nascent culture of simulation is affecting our ideas about mind, body, self and machine.’ Moreover, she believes that the changes she is tracking, far from being isolated, are part of a general change in the way we live and think. The context in which the culture of simulation must be understood is that ‘of the eroding boundaries between the real and the virtual, the animate and the inanimate, the unitary and the multiple self’ – a phenomenon occurring both ‘in advanced scientific fields of research and in the patterns of everyday life’.

Turkle’s raw material is interviews, and her own experience with computers in a technically sophisticated environment (MIT). Her brief differs from that of most commentators – she asks what computers do to us, rather than for us. While she is not unduly fearful of their future impact, her account is an effective antidote to the futurology which assumes that all increases in information-processing power will be wanted, and found to be good. As such increases are on the way, much of her book can be taken as a warning.

Life on the Screen is about an evolving relationship. Turkle characterises the simple letters and numbers displays and pre-mouse commands of early computing as ‘Modern’, the responsive graphic interfaces of today as ‘Post-Modern’. But it is not just a matter of how screens look. MUDs (multi-user domains), in which participants take on imaginary personalities, provide much of her evidence about the effects of screen life – and exchanges on MUDs are no more sophisticated in visual terms than the average note passed in class. A MUD is, essentially, a lot of people sitting writing to each other: a long-distance, real-time game of consequences, a group telephone conversation where the exchanges are written down rather than spoken. They are understood to take place in a world, also described on the screen, which the participants share. From your keyboard you communicate with other players. You can code your contributions so that they can be received by all, or by a group or chosen individual. You can get permission to make your own space, in which other players can visit you – they will then be offered your description of your imaginary environment. You can (by way of descriptions) act: come, go, be nasty, be nasty back and so on.

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