Life on the Screen

by Noche Kandora

Spreading yourself around – If you’re intrigued by the phenomenon of man having more than one side to his personality — aspects of himself that he keeps buried away but would gladly unleash under the right circumstances — Sherry Turkle’s Life on the Screen will likely prove to be an interesting read. Turkle discusses this type of subject matter within the context of the culture of simulation, chiefly by investigating the sociological and psychological dynamics of the online environments that have come to function as de facto laboratories and playgrounds for social and personal experimentation.

The book also examines the personal motivations driving the users who are populating these cyberspaces and playing around with identity in ways such as gender swapping on message boards or other online forums, and exercising alter egos in the myriad virtual “communities” that proliferate on the Web, most notably online games such as text-based MUDs, or Multi-User Domains, where users can lead separate but virtual existences.

“MUDs provide a situation in which we can play out scenarios that otherwise might have remained pure fantasy,” Turkle writes.

But we don’t get strictly clinical explanations or generic theorizations from Turkle as we explore such subject matter: one of the more interesting aspects of this book is the author’s often-revealing interviews with real people who openly discuss their experiences and thoughts about the alternate roles or characters that they are exploring — or have explored — in various virtual settings.

In several cases where the line between the virtual and the real became permeable, Turkle traces how a number of users even ultimately integrated certain components of their virtual personae into their daily lives in the real world after testing them out online. And in other instances, we read about the users who by and by came to chalk up their venture on the screen as a colossal waste of time. But Turkle acknowledges that there are merits as well as possible pitfalls as far as experimenting with different roles in virtual contexts and engaging in hybrid human relationships.

“Sometimes such experiences can facilitate self-knowledge and personal growth, and sometimes not,” Turkle writes in a passage dealing with Multi-User Domains. “MUDs can be places where people blossom or places where they get stuck, caught in self-contained worlds where, if all else fails, you can retire your character and simply start a new life with another.”

Turkle at one point even somewhat ambiguously suggests that participation in MUDs for certain people can serve in a psychotherapeutic adjunct capacity. “Virtual spaces may provide the safety for us to expose what we are missing so that we can begin to accept ourselves as we are,” she then writes later on in the book.

“In the introduction to this book I quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘Dreams and beasts are two keys by which we are to find out the secrets of our nature. … They are test objects.’ And I said that if he lived today, Emerson would have added computers to his list. But computers are more than a simple addition. Through virtual reality they enable us to spend more of our time in our dreams.” — Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen

Much of the tome deals with experimentation with identity, particularly in light of our evolving relationship with computers over the past 3 1⁄2 decades, over which time we have increasingly nudged open the doorway to virtual experience. Turkle tries to address the nature and ramifications of that transition, namely the switch from modernist to postmodernist ways of thinking about identity and self. She says that through computer culture and technology, individuals are now thinking about identity as being composed of multiple sides that can be explored and expressed online, and ideally, ultimately woven seamlessly into people’s real-life existences.

“What I am saying is that the many manifestations of multiplicity in our culture, including the adoption of online personae, are contributing to a general reconsideration of traditional, unitary notions of identity,” Turkle writes. “When each player can create many characters and participate in many games, the self is not only decentered but multiplied without limit.”

Distinctly due to the machine we call the computer and the phenomenon we call the Internet, our “decentered” selves could even find expression simultaneously via a “distributed presence,” as Turkle refers to it. It’s not an uncommon occurrence: multiple browser windows are opened up on a single desktop — perhaps one window where we are hammering out an e-mail to a family member, another where our avatar is chiming in on a message board, and yet another that may in some fashion be related to our day’s tasks at the office. Each window reflects different aspects of ourselves. And we don’t even have to budge: our physical selves remain in a single location.

But Turkle says the personae we debut and experiment with must genuinely reflect unexpressed or inhibited aspects of ourselves in order to avoid personal incompatibility. For example, she writes that “without any principle of coherence, the self spins off in all directions. Multiplicity is not viable if it means shifting among personalities that cannot communicate. Multiplicity is not acceptable if it means being confused to a point of immobility.”

If you can put up with her occasional feminist slant, which she uses extremely sparingly as she tries to put virtuality and the human-computer relationship into context against backdrops such as 20th century psychoanalytic thought, Turkle’s Life on the Screen is a worthwhile text.

Book: Life on the Screen
Author: Sherry Turkle
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Year: 1997
ISBN: 0684833484
Shelf: Nonfiction

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