WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 24, 1999
The Human Side of the Screen
Sherry Turkle - MIT's 'cybershrink' - says e-commerce won't replace the mall
By Alex Pham
Turkle, a professor of the sociology of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been called an ethnologist of on-line life, a cybershrink, and the Margaret Mead of cyberspace.
Exaggerations? Perhaps. But this much is true: as a pundit, Turkle has carved a national niche for herself as an authoritative commentator on the existential topic of how the Internet is transforming people's behavior and sense of self. In 1995, Newsweek magazine named her in its "50 for the Future: the Most Influential People to Watch in Cyberspace." In 1997, Time Digital Magazine put her on its list of the top 50 "Cyber Elite."
As millions of consumers flock on-line to do everything from checking stock quotes to searching for that 1955 Roy Rogers lunchbox, life on the Internet has taken on a mystical aura. The fascination has led many Internet-watchers to Turkle's doorstep in search of higher meaning.
To satisfy the masses, she has dispensed humanist perspectives on one of man's coldest creations. Her books-- "The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit," (Simon and Schuster, 1984) and "Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet" (Simon and Schuster, 1995) -- deal with how computers have changed the way people interact with the world and view themselves.
Turkle views the world of electronic commerce in philosophical fashion. One of her recurrent messages: the Internet will not replace stores, boutiques, shopping malls, and supermarkets. Instead, browsing on-line will only whet people's appetite for the real thing.
As evidence, Turkle points to "City of Bits" (MIT Press), a book published by MIT colleague, William Mitchell. Viewers can read the entire book on-line for free. Instead of dampening sales, Turkle posits that the on-line version has boosted sales of the physical book.
"It has increased the appetite for the book itself," Turkle says. "People wanted the experience of the book, its functionality, its ease of maneuverability."
The same is true of the shopping experience.
"I sense myself as a consumer who has access to many, many different kinds of media for getting information," she says. "I experience the product at a store. I see it in a catalog in a setting I can fantasize about. I can go on-line to learn more about it, its ratings, its price points. All this information goes into a purchasing decision, and increasingly, we are becoming better and better at it. It's changing the experience of being a consumer. People are becoming connoisseurs of information."
To those who see the on-line buying experience as being too cold, or too dehumanizing, Turkle says the criticism is a red herring.
"Too often, the computer is compared to what it would be like living in a small village," Turkle says. "They imagine a cafe in France where people meet daily and you come across the same cast of characters. They set up a 19th century ideal and compare the computer to it. What we're really doing is confronting what we miss most in the rest of our lives. . . As a mirror for society, it's a very telling comment."
It is that yearning for the human touch that will preserve roles and functions that ought to belong in the human domain. To illustrate, Turkle turns to the anecdote, a tool she uses liberally in her books to bring lofty philosophical ideas into easily digestible form.
"I was interviewing an 11-year-old about artificial intelligence," Turkle says. "He said, 'When there are robots who can perform all the jobs, people will still cook the food, run the restaurant and have families. I guess they'll still be the ones who will go to church.' He was saying that you have to accept computers for what they can do, but that there are still things that only people can do, like form relationships and develop spirituality."
Turkle is less sanguine, however, when it comes to the subject of on-line trading of stocks. Likening it to a "casino atmosphere," she cautions against the addictive quality of stock trading that can lead to financial ruin for individuals. She worries about how day trading, as the practice is called, can contribute to, in fact feeds on, the volatility of the stock market.
"Clearly there will always be speculators," she says. "But as this phalanx of Americans move into day-trading, you begin to create a stock market that feels like a casino. It becomes a closed game of winners and losers, increasingly disconnected from economic life."
These days, however, Turkle is occupied with a more down-to-earth topic than macroeconomics. A mother of a 7-year-old girl, Turkle is interested in how technology affects children. Her current research topic: The Furby, a fuzzy, computerized, mechanized doll that talks, blinks, sleeps and asks to be fed.
"So much of the conversation is about how 'smart' the Furby is," says Turkle. "But I think the story is not so much what's in the Furby so much as what it triggers in the child."
So far, Turkle has observed a crucial difference in how children connect with a Furby as opposed to a doll that behaves completely predictably. "This lack of predictability causes us to see them in a different light," Turkle says. "In the future, these toys can socialize us into being used to the idea that machines are not always predictable and shapes the way we relate to them."
Watching children play with technology, Turkle has uncovered a generational difference. While people over 30 are socialized to read directions and approach technology with linear logic, children simply plunge in. "With the Furby, children don't read the instructions," she says. "They just pick it up and start playing. The computer culture rewards this type of tinkering, this type of cognitive risk-taking. I call it the triumph of tinkering."