Now with added blog

Review of Life on the Screen 
by Sherry Turkle 
1997 Touchstone Books; ISBN: 0684833484 


This book is a witty and well-written exploration of the strange world of cyberspace and the even stranger world of postmodern theories. Most books which deal with postmodernism leave you knowing less then you did to start with. Sherry Turkle, who is not a Marxist, is concerned both to clarify postmodern ideas and to make explicit the differences between postmodernism and Marxism.

The subject matter of the book is the relationship which develops between people and their computers.  Multi User Domains (MUDs) are areas in cyberspace where a number of people meet for any purpose.  Often they will never meet in RL (real life).  The opening quote of the book is from a student; "RL is just one more window and it is usually not my best one."

Some MUDs are purely text-based but some are graphical.  The MUD has become "an object to think with" for American users who are predominantly middle class, male and white. They increasingly use the Internet to explore alternative gender and ethnic roles in the apparently safe environment of MUD.

Like Herz in "Joystick Nation" she deals with the increasing importance of simulations both in games and in serious applications such as warfare and economic planning.  The comparison is made between the popular game Sim City 2000 and the planning software used in Washington.  In both cases the user is a prisoner of the implicit assumptions used by the programmer - for example race is never a factor in inner city conflicts in Sim City and the solution to crime is to flood the streets with police.

A sociologist was told by his daughter that the built-in bias of the programme against mixed-use development was "just the way the game works."
"My daughter’s words seemed oddly familiar.  A few months earlier someone had said virtually the same thing to me ... while I was working at the White House.  We were discussing the simulation model likely to be used by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to score proposals for health care reform.  When I criticised one assumption, a colleague said to me ‘Don’t waste your breath,’ warning that it was hopeless to try to get CBO to change.  Policy would have to adjust."
She does not reject all simulations but believes that a criticism of simulations should lead to simulations which help players challenge the inbuilt assumptions.

She uses the changing emphasis in computer science as a metaphor for the difference between Marxism and postmodernism, she mentions one philosophy student who "does not  believe that society can be understood in terms of any systematic theory.  But he does believe that if we accept society’s opacity we can learn at least to navigate its contours more effectively."

The rise of postmodernism is associated with the defeat of the revolutionary movement in France in 1968.  A mass movement of the working class was derailed by the leadership of the French Communist Party who sought to turn the mass movement (not for the first time) into legalistic and parliamentary channels. Leading French intellectuals were driven by this into non-Marxist and even pre-Marxist ideology.

In place of a battle to change society, they put a continual struggle to constitute the self.  In place of a battle against the ideology of the ruling class they advocate manipulation of a kaleidoscope of competing ideologies.  They were no longer concerned to change the world and believed it impossible even to explain it.

While explaining these ideas in detail, Sherry Turkle also provides a fascinating insight into the developments of artificial intelligence and the shifting ground of the debate around the ability of computers to have intellectual ability or display emotions.

The "Turing Test" is one in which in which humans and machines interface and the machine passes the test if it can pass for human.  Sherry Turkle provides an interesting example of a college student using the name "Barry" who spent days in a multi-user domain trying to seduce a piece of software called  "Julia".  She concluded that "It is not clear whether Julia passed a Turing test or Barry failed one."

Turing tests are taking place in cyberspace all the time and the author was a little surprised to find a character in a multi-user domain calling itself "Dr Sherry" and conducting research in a virtual room.  It was not clear whether the character was a real person or a program written to simulate a character (known as a ‘bot) but she could be fairly certain that it wasn’t her!

I found this book a first class read.  Whatever you think about the book, you can always contact Sherry Turkle on the Internet and give her your thoughts.  She will respond... but is it the ‘RL’ Sherry that responds?