Sherry Turkle began to study the interaction of humans
with computers in the late 1970s. Her first book on the
topic, "The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit,"
was published in 1984.
A professor of the sociology of science at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, Dr. Turkle is also a licensed
clinical psychologist who has studied psychoanalytic theory
Dr. Turkle, 50, has made a specialty of interviewing people
about their experiences with computers and the Internet.
Over the years, she has amassed a wealth of observations
about the effect of computers and the Internet on adults,
teen-agers, children, technical novices and experts
Dr. Turkle's most recent book, "Life on the Screen: Identity
in the Age of the Internet," published by Simon &
Schuster in 1995, was the product of years of interviews
with people who spend a lot of their time on the Net, for
whom reality, as one of Dr. Turkle's interview subjects put
it, "is just one more window." Dr. Turkle was an early
proponent of this idea, now commonly accepted, that identity
on the Internet is fluid.
This interview was conducted via E-mail.
Q. What was it that first got you interested in
A. For over a decade, I studied the psychology of
people interacting with computers, where the focus of my
work was the relationship between person and machine. In the
late 1980's, I realized that the focus of my work had to
shift-- increasingly people were using computers to interact
with other people.
There are some people who use the Net to act out. That is,
they use this new medium to express unresolved conflicts in
their lives, to run the "old tapes" in unproductive ways.
But there are other people who are able to use this medium
to work through issues, who are able to use the Net to
effect change in their lives.
Q. What is it about the Net that allows people to
make changes in their lives?
A. When people are on line, they tend to express
different aspects of themselves in different settings. A
businessman might call himself Armaniboy on one mailing list
and Motorcycleman on another. They begin to move fluidly
among them and have an experience that encourages them to
challenge traditional ways of thinking about identity. They
find ways to think about a healthy self not as single and
unitary, but rather as having many aspects. People come to
see themselves as the sum of their distributed presences on
the windows they open on their screens. And the computer
serves as a metaphor for thinking about the self: the
technical metaphor of cycling through computer windows has
become a way to think about the relationships among aspects
of the self.
I think that when a new technology comes on the scene, it is
natural to first think about it in terms of instrumental
effects, what it can do for us. Only with some time and
distance do people tend to turn to its subjective effects,
what it does to us as people. I think that we are just at
this point now with the computer, as people come to realize
that this technology offers dramatic new possibilities for
personal growth, for developing personal senses of mastery,
for forming new kinds of relationships.
Walt Whitman said, "A child went forth every day and the
first object he look'd upon, that object he became." We make
our technologies, and our technologies shape us in turn.
Behind the strong feeling about Microsoft may be a growing
realization that computers change the way we think, so
Microsoft is a company whose esthetic, as expressed in its
operating system, is shaping our style of thought.
Q. Is the variability of identity on the Net a
A. In the best of cases, looking at one's life on
the screen causes one to reflect on the self and on what one
seems to desire, what seems to be missing, what seems to be
Of course, in some cases, what people experience in the
on-line world is disquieting or disturbing. But here again,
the most constructive response is to use this experience as
grist for the mill for thinking about the rest of one's
Some think that we have moved from a psychoanalytic to a
computer culture in terms of how we think of our minds, from
"Freudian slips" to information-processing errors. But the
reality is more complex-- to understand identity on the
Internet, we would be better served by combining both
Q. You have often talked about the computer as an
"object to think with" for thinking about the self. What do
you mean by this?
A. When I write about the computer as an "object
to think with" or an "evocative object" for thinking about
the self, I am pointing to the many ways in which the
computer poses questions about the nature of the self. The
computer is a marginal or boundary object, a mind that is
not quite a mind; it does not really "think," yet it is in
some sense a psychological machine. It is the existence of
the computer on the boundary that causes people to reflect
on what they themselves are, how they are like and not like
Q. You have often aid that you dislike the phrase
"Internet addiction." Why?
A. The term addiction is most usefully saved for
experiences with substances like heroin, which are always
dangerous, always bad, always something to turn away
The Internet offers experiences in which people discover
things about themselves, good and bad, usually complicated
and hard to sort out. People grow and learn and discover new
potential. People also discover preoccupations and fantasies
that they may have never dealt with before and which may be
very troubling. If you call the Internet addicting, then you
have to call all powerful, evocative experience
I think that many of our anxieties about the Internet are a
displacement of other anxieties about the power of
technology in our lives. People feel that computers are
getting out of control, and they fear they can do nothing
about it. Then they seize on the Internet and imagine that
this is a place where they can exert control. So they focus
on censorship, on pornography, on filters. Similarly, people
despair about the state of education and look to the
Internet for a technological fix. It would be better if we
faced our real fears.
Q. What are you working on now?
A. I'm working on ways in which the computer is
beginning to impinge on our notions of bodies and what a
body can be.
To take one case: at M.I.T., researchers are using computers
that they wear on their bodies not only as tools or as
prosthetics but in the spirit of trying to recreate
themselves as cyborgs, humans enhanced by technology.
Indeed, they call themselves cyborgs. I want to understand
the changes in identity when people experience a much more
fluid boundary between themselves and technology.
This year I have been teaching a course on the question of
people's relationships with "objects" and how objects carry
ideas, how objects are invested with emotion, how objects
enter into cognitive and emotional development. The students
in this course studied computational objects (such as the
"virtual bodies" of programs like The Visible Man and
Woman), on-line "tombstones" (new, highly evocative spaces
for marking a death) and maps, and we contrasted these kinds
of objects with their "physically embodied" analogs.
This, too, is another part of my new interest in the issue
of embodiment. I am working toward a book that looks at
these embodiment questions. Next year I am bringing
psychoanalysts into this course, something of a break with
the M.I.T. culture, but I think that this will enrich the
Q. You've worked quite a bit with children.
How has the Internet changed children's lives?
A. Over the past 20 years, the objects of
children's lives have come to include machines of even
greater intelligence, toys and games and programs that make
the first cybertoys seem primitive in their ambitions.
Today's children are growing up with "psychological
machines," the computers that are so much a part of their
lives. They have become accustomed to the idea that objects
that are not alive might nonetheless have a psychology and
Most adults still find the idea of a machine with
consciousness to be a contradiction in terms and deeply
disturbing even to contemplate. I believe that today's
children will grow up with very different feelings and thus
be in a different frame of mind when forming relationships
They will be more likely to take the machines "at interface
value," that is, to accept them as dialogue partners, even
as companions of a sort.