Life on the Screen

Turkle, Sherry. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet  (1995)

Simon & Schuster, 347 pages, $25.00 hardcover

ISBN 0-684-80353-4

Sherry Turkle, a professor of the sociology of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, holds a joint doctorate in psychology and sociology from Harvard. Since her first exposure to computers in the mid 1970s she has been fascinated with the role of computers in our lives. In 1984 she published The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit, the result of six years of research into how the use of computers changes the way people think about themselves and their world.

In Life on the Screen Turkle describes the findings of her ongoing research into the effects of computers in a world built around a set of ideas she calls postmodernism:

These ideas are difficult to define simply, but they are characterized by such terms as "decentered," "fluid," "nonlinear," and "opaque." They contrast with modernism, the classical world-view that has dominated Western thinking since the Enlightenment. The modernist view of reality is characterized by such terms as "linear," "logical," " hierarchical," and by having "depths" that can be plumbed and understood. (p. 17)

This shift from modernism to postmodernism (in Turkle's terms) parallels a change in outlook toward computers from the 1970s to today. In the late 1970s, Turkle says, people approached computers as giant calculators, machines that could be probed and understood; today, however, we think of computers as simulators useful for exploring all kinds of possibilities. "Computer screens are the new location for our fantasies, both erotic and intellectual. We are using life on computer screens to become comfortable with new ways of thinking about evolution, relationships, sexuality, politics, and identity" (p. 26).

This technology meshes well with a society that laments loneliness while at the same time fearing intimacy. "Interactive and reactive, the computer offers the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. One can be a loner yet never be alone" (p. 30).

In this fragmented, postmodernist world posited by Turkle, technology offers ways for individuals to explore and come to grips with their identity. "The Internet is another element of the computer culture that has contributed to thinking about identity as multiplicity. On it, people are able to build a self by cycling through many selves" (p. 178). She concludes 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" (p. 260).

© 1997 by Mary Daniels Brown

All material on these pages is © as indicated by Mary Daniels Brown