A More Crocodile Crocodile

Lidija Haas

  • Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle
    Basic, 360 pp, £18.99, February 2011, ISBN 978 0 465 01021 9

At the height of the ‘warrantless wiretapping’ scandal of 2006 – George W. Bush had authorised the National Security Agency to monitor overseas phone calls involving suspected al-Qaida operatives, but it transpired that the surveillance extended to all electronic communication and web activity, foreign and domestic – Sherry Turkle went to a party celebrating the Webby Awards. An unnamed ‘Web luminary’ explained why he wasn’t concerned about privacy and state spying. On the internet, he told Turkle, ‘someone might always be watching, so it doesn’t matter if, from time to time, someone actually is.’ In other words, never do or say something you wouldn’t want others, including the government, to know about: you’re safe ‘as long as you are not doing anything wrong’. ‘All around us at the cocktail party,’ Turkle recalls, ‘there were nods of assent.’

Anecdotes like this are a gift to techie-haters. Writers on technology and the internet can often be divided into triumphalists and alarmists, and on the face of it Turkle would seem to belong in the second camp. The subtitle of her latest book, Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, sounds like a cousin to What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, or The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age. But Turkle is not a Luddite or a scaremonger: Alone Together is the third in a trilogy, part of a project she has been working on since she joined MIT in 1976 and noticed that the people there were using the language of psychology to talk about their machines. At the same time, computational metaphors – debugging, hardwiring, reprogramming – were becoming commonplace in discussions about politics, education, the mind and the self. Alone Together is not the work of someone hostile to technology’s advances, but Turkle has described it as ‘a book of repentance’: she is atoning for the things she missed or got wrong in her earlier, sunnier work on computers and people.

Turkle published the first book in her trilogy, The Second Self, in 1984; in it, she examined children’s first encounters with computers, electronic toys and video games, and from there went on to think about the subcultures of AI, hacking and home-computer hobbyism. She identified three stages in the children: the youngest had a ‘metaphysical’ reaction to the machines, asking questions about what it means for something to be alive; the seven or eight-year-olds were more interested in ‘mastery’, wanting to win at games or use the computers to make things; the adolescents again were reflective, but now their concern was with identity – which is to say, with themselves. They developed widely differing programming styles: aggressively competitive or dreamy and artistic, tinkering with small details or reimagining everything from scratch. These differences didn’t simply mirror their existing personalities; programming prompted them to reflect on – and sometimes change – their behaviour and the relationships they had with other people. Computers, she concluded, could be intimately involved in ‘the development of personality, of identity and even of sexuality’. Among the adults, those who were interested in AI were drawn to philosophical questions, hackers set themselves ever greater challenges, and the hobbyists saw aspects of themselves reflected in their machines.

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[*] Sherry Turkle wrote about the visit to the museum in the LRB of 20 April 2006.