Who am we?

Sherry Turkle’s article “Who Am We?,” published in Wired Magazine, begins complicating identity immediately. Turkle begins by discussing the many Sherry Turkles who exist in separate but interconnected spheres. She then alludes, in third person, to having authored Life on the Screen. (Much of this article’s material is also covered in Life on the Screen.) And at the beginning of her third paragraph, she pushes that separation a little further with the sentence: “This story is borne of Turkle’s past decade of research.” We don’t know which Turkle she’s talking about here, but whichever one it is, it’s not the one who’s speaking to us now.

Soon enough, she gets to her metaphor of windows, which “allow us to cycle through cyberspace and real life, over and over. Windows allow us to be in several contexts at the same time …” And that all leaves me feeling a little schizophrenic. But I’ve got to admit, those windows are important in structuring life, even as they separate lives. It was certainly a little strange when, as an undergraduate, I first realized my professors could access Facebook. And that strangeness arose from having two “windows” of my life suddenly merge. I think of it like talking politics. I talk politics differently at school, at home, with my husband, with my dad. Why? Because talking politics, for me, is a way to identify with someone. And that means that I always seek the areas of politics where I hold similar beliefs to the person I’m talking to, and that’s what frames our discussion. If I had to talk fiscal policy with someone from school, well, that’s a window I don’t access very often. In fact, it’s a sort of hybrid between other windows I do access, and it makes me uncomfortable.

Thinking in windows is a new thing, at least relatively speaking, because you and I are picturing windows on a computer screen rather than windows in a wall. This shift is part of the generational change Turkle talks about in which some people think of a computer as a giant calculator and others things of it as something a lot messier, softer, more amorphous than that. “Today’s computational models of the mind often embrace a postmodern aesthetic of complexity and decentering” (2). People younger than I am conceive of computers differently than I do. And people of my parents’ generation think of computers differently then either of those younger generations. It seems, based on Turkle’s discussion of Tim, the SimCity fan, that younger generations are OK with not understanding the whole picture. It’s acceptable to them that computerish workings are beyond their control. “Children are comfortable with the idea that inanimate objects can both think and have a personality. But they no longer worry if the machine is alive,” which is interesting because it’s a worry that older generations have invested considerable angst and energy on (3). (Think 1984, Terminator, Minority Report.) But, Turkle says, children are developing a different conception of aliveness: “they are increasingly likely to attribute qualities to [computers] that undermine the machine/person distinction” such as intention, ideas, even consciousness (3). (I’m still struggling with the idea of mobility as a characteristic of aliveness. Turkle quotes children as saying things with more mobility are more alive, and mobility includes an animal in a Sim universe being able to move into other programs or onto other computers, virus-like. Moreover, children assume a desire for mobility in these e-creatures.) The new distinction has to do with sensuality and embodiment—which, ironically, is something people often use computers to mediate.

Which brings me to the question I’ve been circling since I read this article: What is embodiment? What is the difference between thought and action? (This is a particularly interesting quandary in terms of religion, where many Protestant believers ascribe to the notion that one is saved by faith—something at least akin to thought—rather than works—action.) And which of those categories does writing fit beneath? Turkle tells us that MUDs (multi-user dungeons, a category that includes all simulated worlds) are “organized around the metaphor of physical space” (5). Why this metaphor? Probably because we haven’t yet evolved to conceive of something as not requiring space. An object has to have mass in order to be real, doesn’t it? But if that’s the case, how to we acknowledge those things that separate us from computers, like love, hate, and feeling in general? Perhaps it’s the contents of a being’s non-spatial components that define aliveness? Humans have emotion where computers have X. X being all the stuff that floats around in virtual “space.”

Turkle also talks about passing in MUDs, which is even more interesting when one considers the case of Doug, who effectively passes for a computer-played character in one of his MUDs (6). If computers can pass as humans, is the opposite possible? And if so, is defining aliveness a moot point?

Toward the end of the article, Turkle talks about the line between virtual and real. It seems that combining the two usually leads to disappointing results. So I wonder … is this only the case for people who play MUDs? Or is there some part of that disappointment that comes through when one tries to mediate a cohesive online identity as well? “Once we take virtuality seriously as a we of life, we need a new language for talking about the simplest things” (11). Embodiment, feeling, relationships, and self all become far more complex.

So I’ll end with a quote from Donna Haraway that Turkle uses in this article:

“Irony is about contradictions that do not resolve into larger wholes … about the tension of holding incompatible things together because both or all are necessary and true.”

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