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.

What is missing from games in cyberspace is, of course, the ironic interactions (laughter, eye contact and so on) which set a distance between the real and the made-up. In MUDs players assume roles as they sit typing at their screens, often continents apart. They may work their way up in the politics of the game and become ‘wizards’ – the cyberbosses who control the MUD. They verbally fondle, abuse or charm; they are fondled, abused or charmed in return. They may use several names, each with its own personality. They quite often swap gender. In a MUD, what you can imagine, you can do.

Unfortunately, the imagination does not always flourish under this regime. Here, for example, is how they marry in cyberspace: ‘Achilles prepared for it in advance by creating a sacred clearing in cyberspace, a niche carved out of rock with fifty seats intricately carved with animal motifs. During their wedding Achilles and Winterlight recalled their engagement gifts and their love and commitment to each other. They were addressed by the priest Tarniwolf.’ And so on, for many pages apparently. This is a typical MUD event. The fragments of dialogue reprinted in Life on the Screen are like conversation overheard on the tour bus. You quickly resolve to get off at the next rest-stop.

But to participants the MUDs have a lot to offer. Where else can you marry, have sex, chatter, argue and interfere, with nil commitment? MUDs are only one province of cyberworld. There are also bulletin boards, where you can express anxieties, gather information and get hot under the collar about cyberfreedom, virtual rape and getting a fair share in simulated societies. There are discussion groups where people worry about what hours spent at the screen are doing to children, minds and relationships. The words tend to be more aggressive than they would be in a face-to-face discussion – they remind you, in that, of academics who, mild as milk at high table, snarl in the safety of the correspondence columns of learned journals.

The exchanges, like the games which occasion them, take place in the electronic space others use to distribute stock prices, have professional consultations, publish scientific papers, issue political manifestos, start help groups and swap subversive ideas or rude pictures. There are only notional frontiers. In real offices flirtations take place by the water cooler or behind a planter. The same kind of thing goes on in electronic space. In one corner of a scientist’s screen, alongside lines of computer code or graphs, there may be a window he turns to from time to time to become a quite different person – someone chats up someone else’s alternative persona. Although the journey into cyberspace is a trip people take on their own, the fragment of themselves they take there meets up with other real and invented selves. Sometimes they begin to wonder who they really are.

Some of Turkle’s subjects are embarrassed and disappointed by records of the things they wrote during the hours they spent online. She quotes one young man who found the log of exchanges between a Beatrice-persona and his Dante-persona empty of the feelings he remembers having as he sat typing – ‘where was the warmth, the sense of complicity and empathy?’ This suggests that computer conversations are flimsy when compared with real-life conversations. But that misses the point. In a MUD writers are readers, readers are characters and characters are writers. To judge an exchange you must participate, and Dante’s disappointment points to a general truth. As Turkle says, ‘when everything is in the log and nothing is in the log, people are confronted with the degree to which they construct relationships in their own minds.’ We are predisposed to join the dots and fill in the picture. The fact that this leaves us open to deception is unimportant beside the benefits of the swift judgment and action which it makes possible. The computer record can, it seems, make us self-conscious about how we carry on in the world, just as snapshots and video-recorders make us self-conscious about how we look. So low-grade MUD outputs are not evidence against Turkle’s belief that something important is happening.

At the very least, MUDs are a dramatic illustration of how little it takes to simulate a personality. Players know that although identities are often assumed, conversations will usually be with another human player. But not always; there are ‘bots’, like the therapy program called Julia. Julia is all software. Her responses are programmed; she knows a lot about ice hockey, makes jokes and flirts. Her programmer says that ‘her sarcastic non sequiturs provide her with enough apparent personality to be given the benefit of the doubt in an environment where people make a first assumption that other players are people too.’ It can take a long time to realise that Julia is not a person. One young man spent several sessions flirting with her – since 1990, Julia has ‘wandered the MUDs with a sassy female persona operating in a raunchy social environment. Survival has required that she be adept at detecting and deflecting sexual advances.’ The young man appears to have been unusually obtuse. As one commentator put it, it was unclear whether Julia had passed Alan Turing’s test for computer intelligence (which involves asking questions and deciding from the answers whether they are being given by a human being or a machine) or he had failed one. Sharper observers, who suss out Julia’s status, are still willing to talk with her. Some find her a comfort.

Julia may be a good therapist, but is she a person? Are her clients talking to themselves? Or to the person who programmed her? If they are having a conversation, does that indicate she is a person, even if she is not alive? There is no need to make too much of this kind of thing. A study of a group of children who were given the opportunity to build and program robots found that they came to ‘think about the creatures in many different ways, cycling through mechanical, psychological and informational descriptions’. Sensible children. When one questions the appropriateness of metaphors like ‘computers are electronic brains’ or ‘the self is just information,’ philosophical arguments of substance arise. Although Turkle gives an account of them, they have little relevance to her exposition of how computers seem to their users.

Advances in computer design, however, embody metaphors so strongly that they change the character of the machine and our attitude to it. For example, during the Eighties ‘emergence’ came to dominate thinking about artificial intelligence. Computers which process many inputs in parallel (neural nets), and learn by weighting successful responses, seem much more like brains than machines which process information by feeding it through a single processor. ‘The story of romantic reactions to the computer presence was no longer simply about people responding to their reflection in the mirror of the machine. Now computer designers were explicitly trying to mirror the brain. There had been a passage through the looking glass.’ If computing moves swiftly in this direction, the changes Turkle has noticed over the last decade could be as nothing to those we see over the next. There are computer operations already which are beyond analysis – and the questions these give rise to (for example, what is the status of a mathematical proof which depends on computation of this sort?) will begin to resemble the questions we ask about other minds. A philosophical rebuttal of claims that computers think would have little effect on the reactions of people sitting in front of one which seemed to.

The people who were happiest with ‘Modernist’ personal computers knew in a general way what was going on inside them. The instructions which activated them were unforgiving of errors of syntax. The ‘Post-Modern’ icon-strewn screens of the Mac and Windows interfaces are friendlier. A mistake does not, as it did early on, lead you to a blank wall. You explore your computer environment, experiment with the things you find there. Knowing how your computer works no longer means giving an account of the electronics, but being able to run the software. In Turkle’s words, we have ‘learned to negotiate rather than analyse’. This change was not always welcome. She tells of an amateur mechanic whose hobby was tinkering with a particular make of car. When his favourite model was given electronic components he gave up. The pleasure had been in knowing how the car worked. The new model was, in his terms, a virtual machine, the controls and feedbacks expressed in the connections of three-dimensional components had been abstracted. There are users who complain about the Mac in similar terms, finding too much of the ‘no need to worry your pretty little head about that’ in its responses to tinkering. ‘Some,’ Turkle writes, ‘are tempted to think of life in cyberspace as insignificant, as escape or meaningless diversion. It is not. Our experiences there are serious play. We belittle them at our risk ... If we cultivate our awareness of what stands behind our screen personae, we are more likely to succeed in using virtual experience for personal transformation.’ The belief that personal transformation is possible colours American culture in a way which it is hard for Europeans to grasp. We are less taken with self-improvement, less hopeful about change, more sceptical about ‘can do’, and inclined to see change in ourselves, as in society at large, as glacially slow and beyond individual control. We may also feel a little less endangered because we feel a little less free.

I am sceptical about the claim that using computers has affected or will greatly affect our sense of identity, though you could argue that a change which affects the way we see things will also affect the way we judge the effects of that change; if spending too long in front of my screen has made me insensitive, it will also have made me insensitive to my own insensitivity. Even if our identities are not under serious threat, however, some other things are. Turkle’s picture of what computers do to us and her warnings about risks we must not belittle fit with a more general anxiety: that reality is being replaced by simulations which are not adequate substitutes. The look, sound and feel of the real involves redundancies of information which it is one of the aims of computing to avoid. Even when the slick surfaces of computer graphics are roughed up by texture-creating algorithms, and the sly recursiveness of exchanges like those Julia offers are elaborated, a strong whiff of the mechanical remains. When they become yet more perfect they lead us away from reality more beguilingly, but more dangerously. We have reason to regret the messiness which is lost when we transfer human work to computers, for the messiness is itself of value. The first drafts, corrected proofs, preliminary drawings and sketches which may justify and explain the final work to the point where they must be considered part of it now tend to have an unreal and temporary existence in computer memory. Making without difficulty, ways of making which discourage preservation of the evidence of processes, like the life without difficulty lived on the MUDs, is a kind of cheat. It is like a game where you can always choose to win.

Turkle’s last sentence envisages a revivified Freudianism which will meet our need for a ‘practical philosophy of self-knowledge’ to help us ‘struggle to make meaning from our lives on the screen’. But the damage computing has done to work will not be repaired by increased self-knowledge of that sort. As middling skills – making an index, working a lathe, typesetting a book, welding a joint, editing a film, processing an order, setting up a loom (the list is endless) – are transferred to a virtual environment, drudgery disappears. But inextricably woven in with that drudgery were distinctly human pleasures of conversation, muscular co-ordination and judgment. The playful part of computer life helps us make sense of the virtual environment, but it should not be allowed to conceal the extent to which computers have diminished the quantity of significant work available in the world. They have made once-valuable abilities worthless. Mechanical engines made brute strength merely decorative – something for an athlete to develop and display. Computers have done the same thing to a whole swathe of craft skills, from drawing a straight line or adding up a column of figures to judging an exposure or managing a paint-spraying rig.

Play on the screen is no substitute for activity in the world. Sherry Turkle’s description of the attack on the boundaries of the self can be added to other, much older lists of alienations – from the land, from memorial transmission, from handwork and so on. We want to grow up to do things for ourselves: stand up, walk, tie a shoelace, read a clock. The craft equivalent of things which I once learnt – how to set type by hand, how to rule a straight line, make a tracing, set out a perspective, letter a diagram, lay a tint – are now useless. I am of course addicted to the ease and fluency with which computers allow these tasks to be carried out. But I know I am also dependent, and fooling myself when I think that what the machine does has really been done by me. I find that diminution of the physical self in many ways more disturbing than the erosion of its psychic boundaries.