An International Conference
October 8-10, 1999
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Childhood and Adolescence in a Mediated Culture

New Media and Children's Identity
Speaker: Sherry Turkle


You framed your last book, Life on the Screen, in part as an attempt to update your conclusions in The Second Self about the ways computers serve as conceptual models for thinking about the self. Specifically, you wanted to confront how networked computers create new spaces for social and psychological experimentation. If you were asked to write another book today reflecting on the technological changes that have affected children in the past five years, what themes would you explore? What technologies or media forms are shaping children's sense of themselves and their world?

[The following is an edited summary, not a complete transcript.]

Sherry Turkle: When I think about these kinds of matters, my touchstone is a line from a Whitman poem: "a child went forth every day and the first object he looked upon, that object he became." In other words we go out into the world -- particularly when we are children -- we make our objects, but then our objects, in turn, make and reshape us. We make our technologies, but our technologies, in turn, make and reshape us. So to answer this set of very complicated questions, let me step back and say something about children growing up in the culture of simulation today.

The first thing to say is that a generation of children is growing up who grant new capacities and privileges to the machine world on the basis of its animation. Today's children endowed the category of made objects with properties such as having intentions and ideas. These were things previously reserved for living beings. Children come up with the new category "sort of alive" for describing computational animation, and they are increasingly softening the boundaries between artifact and flesh, as well as blurring boundaries between the physical real and simulation.

To illustrate this, I am going to be very Piagetian and Freudian and talk about my very favorite child, my daughter. I took my seven-year-old daughter, Rebecca, on a vacation in Italy where we went on a boat ride in the Mediterranean; it could have been a simulation because it looked like a post card. She saw a creature in the water, pointed to it and says, "Look Mommy, a jellyfish! It looks so realistic!"

I told this story about Rebecca and the realistic jellyfish to my friend Danny Hillis, who is a Disney Fellow. He responded to this story by describing what happened when Animal Kingdom, the new branch of the Disney theme parks, opened in Orlando. The animals are real; they are the ones that bleed. So he said that right after it opened, the visitors to the park are asked during a debriefing"what did you enjoy?" The visitors complained that the animals weren't realistic enough -- the animals across the street in Disney World were much more realistic. What they meant was that a Disney World crocodile rolls around, opens his mouth -- he's active because he is a robot programmed to do these "essence of crocodile" activities. The biological robot in Animal Kingdom basically has the attitude of "you brought me here, I'm resting and that's enough!" And so there isn't that action or "essence of crocodile" going on with the real thing.

I raised this issue in order to reaise the question -- what is the "gold standard" here for children? Let me review some of the milestones for thinking about the question of "gold standard." First, in the 1920s and 1930s when Piaget interviewed children about which objects were alive and which were not alive, he found something very startling. He found that the children honed in on their definition of life by figuring out what objects could move without an outside push or pull. They focused essentially on the world of physics in order to create a discourse for talking about life.

Now in contrast, when I began to study the early computer objects that were in the lives of children in the late 1970s, early 1980s, children were arguing about whether computers were alive through discussions of their computer psychology. Did the computer know things on its own or did it have to be programmed? That's kind of a direct analogy to the outside push or pull. Did it have intentions, consciousness, feelings? Did it cheat? Did computers know they were cheating when they cheated? Was knowing part of cheating? Faced with intelligent machines, these kinds of conversations ensued, and children took a new world of objects and imposed a new world order in which physics gave way to psychology and motion gave way to emotion.

In the past ten years that new world order has been strained to the breaking point. Today children will talk about computers as "just machines," but then they describe them as sentient and intentional. The very notion of the machine has been reconfigured to include objects with psychologies. Faced with the objects of the culture of simulation, children still try to impose order, but they do so in the manner of theoretical tinkerers, making do with whatever materials are at hand, making do with whatever theory will fit a prevailing circumstance. Different children comfortably hold different theories. Individual children cycle through different theories, one after the other at a pretty rapid pace. To read you some of these theories off the transcripts of interviews with these kids, I have here my current collection of comments about life by children who have played with computational objects -- including some of the toys that Mitchel brought today:

"The robots are in control but not alive."
"Would be alive if they had bodies"
"Are alive because they have bodies."
"Would be alive if they had feelings"
"Are alive the way insects are alive but not the way people are alive"
"The 'Sim' creatures are not alive they are just in the computer"
"Could be alive if they got out of the computer"
"Are alive until you turn off the computer and then they are dead"
"Not alive because nothing in the computer is real"
"Not alive but almost alive"
"Sort of alive"
"Would be alive if they spoke"
"Would be alive if they traveled"
"Alive but not real"
"Not alive because they don't have bodies"
"Are alive because they can have babies" [in Sim -Life there is reproduction and the creation of a new generation is very important for children]
"Would be alive if they could get out of the computer and onto America Online"

When I presented this material to Jerome Bruner, a very great child psychologist, he reminded me of how robust the old Piagetian notions of life having to do with motion are when you look at these answers. These would be alive when they are moving the way digital things can move now on the Web. I think this is very important now and will be increasingly so.

Most recently there was a new wrinkle in these studies because there is a new kind of object to be the first object that a child looks upon. I call these objects relational objects for want of a more elegant way to talk about them, and they will be the subject of my next book. They do raise new questions about what kinds of relationships seem appropriate for us to have with different objects.

Here are some examples of relational objects: Mitsubishi introduced a robot cat for lonely elders. Rodney Brooks, a colleague here and the director of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab, has developed a robot infant doll that looks like a baby, makes baby sounds, and even baby facial expressions shaped by mechanical musculature It has quite uncannily realistic artificial skin. Most significantly, this computationally complex doll has baby states of mind. If you bounce the doll when it's happy, it gets happier. If you bounce the doll when it's grumpy, it gets grumpier. The user is confronted with a relational artifact that demands that the child attend to the doll's psychology. Now why is this important?

In over two decades of trying to talk about people and computers, I have tried to use the metaphor of computer as Rorschach, and I mean that the computer is a projective screen for our other concerns The Rorschach metaphor is very powerful because it's saying that when we look at ourselves in the mirror of this machine, we see ourselves. I stand by my work, but with relational artifacts such as the doll, this Rorschach model of computer-human relationship breaks down significantly. The computational artifact is no longer effectively neutral. People are learning to interact with computers through conversation and gesture. People are learning that to relate successfully to a computer you have to assess its emotional state. People are learning that when you confront a computational machine, you don't ask how it works in terms of any underlying process, but you take the machine at interface value, much as you would another person. And perhaps most important: a first generation of children are learning that artifa cts need emotional nurturance.

Among the first of these relational objects employed in the marketplace were virtual pets, screen pets such as Tamaguchis, and digital dolls such as Furbies. What makes them different from the computational toys and games that went before is that they have a life cycle and to complete that life cycle they demand children's care and nurturance. For example, in order to grow and be healthy, Tamaguchis, these little screen creatures, need to be fed, cleaned, amused. Furbies, the cuddly little owl creatures, seem to learn and love. They arrive in the child's life speaking Furbish; they learn to speak English; they play hide and seek; they communicate with each other and join together in song; they say, "I love you." They add the dimensions of human-like conversation and some simulation of tender companionship to the mix of what children can anticipate from computational objects.

In the audience today is an associate of mine, Jen Audley. She and I, in interviewing children about these Furbies, have found that very often they want to know the Furbie's state, not to get something right, but to make the Furbies happy. Children want to understand Furbie language, not just to win in a game over the Furbie -- which is the standard computer and kid thing -- but to have a feeling of mutual recognition. Children are not concerned with how Furbies and Tamaguchis work or what they really know, but they are very concerned with the toy's health and well being. In sum, a new generation of objects push on our evolutionary buttons to respond to interactivity by experiencing ourselves as being with a kindred other. A couple of quick quotes of kids talking to Furbies:

Ron, who is 6, when asked whether he thought that the Furbie was alive, said, "Well, the Furbie is alive for a Furbie and, you know, something this smart should have arms. It might want to pick up something or hug me."

Katherine, age 5, when asked if it was alive, said, "Well, I love it. It's more alive than a Tamaguchi because it sleeps with me. It likes to sleep with me."

Jen, age 9, when asked if it was alive, said, "I really like to take care of it. So I guess it's alive. But it doesn't really need to eat so it is as alive as you can be if you don't eat. A Furbie is like an owl, but it is more alive than an owl because it knows more and you can talk to it, but it needs batteries so its not an animal. It's not an animal kind of alive."

So in closing, today's children are learning to distinguish between an animal kind of alive and a Furbie kind of alive. They are learning to have expectations of emotional attachment to computers that is not in the way that we have attachments to our cars and stereos. I am arguing that this is very different because it is much more in the way that we have expectations about our emotional attachments to people.



Mary Flanagan: I teach animation and deal with my college students' blurred perceptions of real experience and media experience all the time. Recently, one of my students made a really nice animation of a nature scene, and when I asked him where he got his inspiration, he said, "my parents and I used to watch nature all the time." I said, "Oh great!" Then he added, "You know, PBS used to run that at night."

You didn't any gender differences between interaction styles with some of these animals, objects, and plastic things. Could you touch on that?

Turkle: That's a very interesting question. I've done a lot of thinking about gender styles, and the connection of the Furbie and nurturance may mean it is a computational object that would appeal to young girls. The Tamaguchi, the first digital object that you needed to love, was designed quite specifically to be the way to get girls into gadgets and computer culture -- and it did. For about 18 months every 11-year-old girl had to have the Tamaguchi chain hanging off her backpack.

Mitch and I have talked a lot about whether it matters how you get girls into the computer culture. One of our long running conversations has been essentially about pink Lego. I know that I originally took a very strong position that, "No, that was cheating." Yet it is quite remarkable that Lego has taken, not just pink Lego, but Lego that includes a lot of characters in the mix. They have constructed sets of Lego with Queens and Kings, Princes and Princesses and it is quite an elaborate fairyland for girls. I was just at Legoland, and girls were lined up to play with it. So now I feel like saying "nevermind" about my position. It is a very complicated issue.

Angela Della Vacche: I teach film studies at Emory University. Recently I have been working on turn of the century materials -- around 1900. I have been thinking about media in transition at the beginning as well as at the end of the century. I have landed on the idea that when there is a transition across media, it works more metaphorically than metonymically. Assuming that metaphor is a mechanism of replacement and metonymy is a mechanism that has to do with extension and development, when there is a change across media, you end up dealing with more replacement images and objects rather than extension.

Consequently, I find your presentation very interesting because it seems that the computer becomes a replacement object for the child in his or her own image. Mirror like -- an imaginative metaphorical replacement rather than a metonymical prop or extension of the body. I think that the reason for this is because it has to with a leap and not with a deep teleology based on a linear model. There is more of a quantum leap or jump and I think that this replacement leap, this metaphorical model has at its own heart to do with transfiguration. That's why the computer is so powerful for the kid because there is a relationship of transfiguring oneself through the computer and the computer transfiguring the child even though there is always a mirroring in-between.

The reason that I say this is because I have been working on the relationship between women and airplanes in turn of the century Italian culture. Fundamentally, the relationship has been one of transfiguration and metaphor rather than a metonymical one. I was fascinated by the previous comment during the lurking discussion when one of the participants talked about a very wide-spread and ancient folkloric Tudor text of dreaming of living outside of one's own body and floating freely in the air. I think that this is also what is going on through metaphor, through the computer, and through replacement images. I think that it would be interesting to include in the discussion of media in transition the metaphor and metonymy issue with the understanding that they are different from each other though, as we all know they often criss-cross. There are metaphors that have a metonymic component and metonymies that have a metaphoric component.

Turkle: The thing about computational objects is that they can both serve as the kind of mirroring and additionally they can serve as a kind of transitional object with which the child forms a relationship that allows for new differentiations of the child's sense that it is being itself. Really to respond to the set of concerns that you are bringing up, I would say that one of the interesting things for me is the versatility and the vocation of computational media, as Mitch was saying, not just as carrying new ideas, but really as carrying a wide variety of kinds of object relationships.

Alex Halavais: I was struck by the AOL comment, but I also wonder if the subject's grandmother was on AOL and, if so, how alive she is. In other words, we are humanizing artifacts -- is that an indication of a different kind of alive for mediated humans?

Turkle: At the end of the day, I am arguing that children are developing new categories that are breaking down and reshuffling the very simple ones that we have had in the past. They are saying "sort of alive" "alive for a Furbie" "a Furbie kind of alive not an animal kind of alive" "a Sim kind of alive" -- I'm describing a world of increasing differentiation in thinking about these kinds of properties; a kind of Wittgensteinian family resemblances model ultimately will help. She's not saying that if these computational Sim creatures got out onto America Online that they would be alive like her grandmother.

Halavais: That's what I am asking. I am wondering if you are also introducing new categories of alive for people who are mediated through technologies. In other words there is alive like my mother, who I talk to on a daily basis and there's alive like my grandmother who's also on AOL.

Turkle: Do we experience other people who are differently alive for us? I think obviously "yes," but then at the end of the day if you are asked to say whether these both have a physical reality, they do. I am more concerned with artifacts that begin to nervously break down those kinds of distinctions. In closing, people are always trying to get me to say that we have moved from a psychoanalytic culture to a computer culture -- that we have moved from a world of Freudian slips to a world of information processing errors. I think that the reality is far more complex, that to study these kinds of things we need the full complexity of the Freudian language about ambivalence, transitional objects, ways of experiencing other people, a language for talking about the difference between desire and need --all of these are going to come up as we really try to make sense of these new lives on the screen, so I think that it would be very helpful if we thought of ourselves not as moving from a psychoanalytic to a computer culture but really trying to cultivate, actively cultivate a joint citizenship.

Compiled by Mary Hopper

Childhood and Adolescence in a Mediated Culture

  • Maria Tatar, Fairy Tales Across Media
  • Mitch Resnick, Children, Toys, Media
  • Henry Jenkins, Historical Views: Children, Technology, Play
    media in transition    agenda    speakers    summaries    papers    dialogue