by Robert Atkins

Sherry Turkle

Sherry Turkle, a clinical psychologist, is also Professor of the Sociology of Science at M.I.T. Her recent book, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (Simon & Schuster), seems to have struck the proverbial chord. It 's garnered global media attention and sold surprisingly well for an accessibly written, but essentially academic volume of essays. It encompasses a variety of subjects including Turkle's psycho-cultural explorations of Mac vs. Dos operating systems and transparent vs. opaque interfaces, the relationships of children and adults to increasingly intelligent machines, and matters of identity--including gender swapping and "tiny sex"--played out in MUDs and MOOs, the on-going, on-line chat environments that simulate reality through language.

Robert Atkins: You suggest the dynamic potential of the Internet in exploring identity. When is such exploration--the acting out of new identities and roles--positive and when is it negative?

Sherry Turkle: It's positive when people express aspects of the self that are inhibited. Say--in a simple sense--by a shy person being more extroverted. It can be as complicated as playing a man if you're a women, or a woman if you're a man. People who do best on-screen are those who reflect on what they're doing.

RA: As in Real Life.

ST: Yes. I don't want to use the term "therapeutic" too loosely since I am a therapist, but the effort to reflect on such experiences is central. I joke that we're at the end of the Freudian century, but never have we so needed a structure for understanding this complex, current reality. I was on a radio call-in show recently and I discussed Erickson's moratorium [on making value judgements] and the possibility of growth related to experiences on-line. Then I got a letter from a caller who said, "Why isn't all this just called lying?"

RA: Inquiring minds want to know...

ST: Sure, that is the question: How are we going to think about this? We'll develop a lot of places on-line where authentification is desirable, even demanded.

RA: Aren't we already seeing that? I'm thinking about the on-line brouhaha that writer Julian Dibbel described in "A Rape in Cyberspace."

ST: That was more a question of transgression against community rules. In Lambda MOO and places like it, playing roles is the norm. We'll have both kinds of situations--authentification and role play--but the rules will have to get clearer. Society can always tolerate breaking rules, as long as there's a consensus about what the rules are. Cyber-society is missing that sense of what the rules are.

RA: In Life on the Screen you observed that in the past identify was forged, but now--to use your term--it's "cycled through." Isn't this the essence of a consumerist relationship to experience?

ST: That's very interesting. The politics of consumerism must be what makes people so comfortable in cyberspace. You've made a provocative connection I haven't. I've been interested in defending cyberculture. [Cultural theorist] Sandy Stone goes so far as to suggest you can be happy with multiple personality disorder. It's extreme. My notion of identity leaves room for discontinuity: the job isn't to integrate, integrate!

RA: Is the divided--or multiple--self so new? You're a daughter, mother, wife, caregiver, academic, whatever. Isn't such role play the bottom line in 20th century personality theory?

ST: The Net dramatizes, concretizes, makes it more urgent to confront what's true anyway. I'm alway interested in the question of what might have been. If the Internet had come along 50 years ago, we surely wouldn't have this mass movement of gender-switching. It's a matter of resonance, of moving things to a higher order.

RA: On-line experiences are certainly revealing of phenomena off-line. I was fascinated by your account of a young man's experience in a MUD providing him with an illusion of upward mobility unavailable to underemployed young people.

ST: Real Life phenomena get underlined. Computers push up the stakes a lot. Think of issues of privacy.

RA: I was glad you mentioned censor par excellence Catharine MacKinnon in your book.

ST: It's funny; I've just begun to teach a course on identity and the Internet and it's alway hard to know what to do on the first day. So I gave students a tearsheet from Time magazine called "Just Words" by MacKinnon. How do we think sensibly about that [conflation of representation and acts]? How do we give a raped, battered woman in a hospital the respect she deserves vis-a-vis the screen victim?

RA: Are your students free expression advocates? Do they have "good instincts" in this regard?

ST: Good instincts? Isn't Clinton signing the telecommunications bill that legislates decency today? Good instincts--I can barely utter those words.

RA: Isn't it remarkable how every new medium allows less expression than the previous one? Words that are okay to publish in print media are not allowed in on-line versions of the same publications! It's Kafkaesque.

ST: It's interesting. I think of televison as a broadcast medium contra the Internet. The cultural role of TV seems much different to me; there are a limited number of stations. In Western Massachusetts, for instance, there are just two stations. So you get real filth and violence if you don't turn the set off after the news. I can see that argument. The Internet shouldn't be classified as a broadcast medium. People need more experience with it. We need a social practice.

RA: Am I correct in assuming that a lot more men are playing women on-line, than vice-versa?

ST: I've found a lot of women playing men. But based on my research, I'm not in a position to refute or corroborate the view that more men than women are into gender-switching.

RA: Have you played men?

ST: It's interesting to play a man. For one thing, you're not hit on all the time. This is a big plus. Women usually have to spend half their time saying, "Get your hands off me!" It's also easier to speak up at meetings; everything that you'd expect. A student reported to me that she wasn't offered help as much when she was playing a man and this caused her to reflect whether she needed that help or not. This has nothing to do with cyber-sex. It shouldn't be a given that sex is always the motive. One case that was extremely interesting and moving to me involved a young man with a Katherine Hepburn-of-a mother and a Jimmy Stewart-of-a-father. He wasn't at all assertive and played assertive women on-line. He learned to integrate these sides of himself.

RA: I remember unsupervised, all-night consciousness-raising groups during the seventies. It was dangerous. People got hurt.

ST: Very dangerous. People are playing with fire. One man found that the 43-year-old hot babe he was involved with on-line `turned out to be 80 years old! He was worried that she could have been 12 years old. He hasn't had a cyber-affair since.

RA: So on-line identity exploration isn't relevant only to the adolescent or the unformed adults among us?

ST: Some of the ideas of Erickson or Freud--like their ideas about unitary identity--are outdated, but others are relevant. The idea that we live and relive experiences our entire life. Adolescent issues get played out differently but they go on throughout our lives. The virtue of this is that it gives us permission to change.

RA: Given today's economic climate, don't we have to keep changing? Isn't it an absolute necessity?

ST: You mean, would all this adaptation, this cycling of identity, go away if we had job security? It's worth thinking about.

Robert Atkins is editor of TalkBack!.

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