Saturday, December 16, 1995

Q&A Sherry Turkle: Yucky Computer Cy-Dough-Plasm

First appeared in the Boston Book Review.
(Date approximate).

We think of ourselves as fluid, emergent, decentralized, multiplicitous, flexible, ever in process. All of these metaphors travel freely among computer science, psychology, cultural studies, artificial intelligence, literary criticism, molecular biology, management science, and artificial life. They carry a "sense of the times" that manifests itself in one place and then another, here as developmental psychology and there as a style of engineering, here as a description of our bodies and there as template for organizational structure, here as a way to build a computer network and there as a manifesto of political ideals.

HB: How did you happen to discover yucky computer cy-dough-plasm?

 ST: One of my favorite stories in Life on the Screen is about a bunch of seven or eight years old kids playing with something called transformer toys. These particular transformer toys transformed from people into robots into trucks. A few of the kids were playing with an object in a kind of intermediate state, with a robot arm, a wheel, and a human arm.

One of the boys got really upset, saying you shouldn't play that way; it should be a truck a robot, a person, not something in-between. A girl came over to comfort him and said, "Oh, you can play with them when they're all in-between. It's all the same, anyway. It's all this yucky computer cy-dough-plasm."

To me, that story shows how children early on are dramatically encountering the merger between biology and cybernetics, flesh and code.

HB: Postmodernism in the day care center.

ST: What seems to us like a subversive theory in literary criticism and social theory will not seem so to the next generation. They will have grown up with objects that carry the theory in the objects themselves.

HB: A marvelous thing about that story is that it exemplifies the tension, even among eight year olds, between wanting things to be as they are, and accepting that things leak into each other, that distinctions blur. It expresses the need for stability and the need for continuity, the need for identity and the need for change.

ST: That was the theme of a lot of what I found. People experiencing themselves as multiple for example, cycle through to the point where they experience themselves as not multiple.

HB: How is this different from previous eras? What is distinctive about it?

ST: In a way, we have played through this story before. Certainly in the history of psychoanalysis, the area I know best, we have gone, in thinking about the self, from notions of multiplicity to identity, from many to one. Psychoanalysis for the past hundred years moves toward decentered versions of the self then pulls back to ego psychology. It entertains object relations theory, where you internalize many objects, and pulls back to anti-object relations theory.

That dynamic is a part of any psychological movement. It's very difficult to live with the multiplicity side of the argument. The very language is constantly pulling us back to "I" — "I" do, "I" desire, "I" want cappuccino.

HB: And to "me," "you," "car," "chair" — anything but yucky computer cy-dough-plasm.

ST: When you're playing with transformer toys, objects can be in a hybrid position but most of the objects we use have to be in their finite form for us to use them. Most things in the culture, most things in the material world, pull us back to centeredness and notions of unity and identity.

However, I think that the stuff of computation, the stuff of virtual space, — the type of parallel communications you can have — create the context for a brave new world in several senses. First of all, think of the language emerging for talking both about computers and DNA, computer code and genetic code, biology and artificial life.

HB: The notion that we are coded beings.

ST: We're constructing organic computers, we're computing with cells, with dna, and the language here, the slippage in language, is so great now that these fields really are starting to merge in significant ways, which means we are no longer going to have separate ways of talking about the stuff of life and the stuff of computation. That's already happening, and that, to me, is a difference between our era and others. When we talk about a dna computer and a DNA program we are no longer just being metaphorical

A second distinction has to do with people playing at being four characters, say, in four different MUDs opened on their computer screen in four different windows. They are playing out multiple identities all at once, in parallel, rather than one after another as in the past.

HB: And a mud is?

ST: A mud is multi-user domain or dimension — or dungeon, from the game dungeons and dragons — in which you and a group of people use the computer to build a virtual space to create and play out characters. You create a representation of yourself within the MUD that has the ability to move around, to describe actions and reactions, and to interact with other people in a spatially defined world.

So, for example, we might be in a mud café facing a parking lot, with trees on the one side, and we would be sitting at a table drinking cappuccino. A computer program — or bot, for robot — programmed to behave like a waiter would come up and say, "Would you like another espresso?"

HB: This bot could even be named Dr. Sherry.

ST: It could even be named Dr. Sherry.

HB: You encountered your double on-line, didn't you?

ST: Two students who wanted to study the psychology of being on-line created a character called Dr. Sherry as a mnemonic — she was somebody who wanted to talk about life on-line. They used my persona as a researcher in this field for the last fifteen years as a trademark for cybershrink.

At first I thought this was flattering, it was the ultimate compliment to be parodied in cyberspace and then I thought, what if people thought Dr. Sherry was me? What goes on in Dr. Sherry's on-line office? What if she's a behaviorist? Or maybe she's having on-line sex of a particular variety. Who knows what Dr. Sherry's doing? A friend said, would you rather Dr. Sherry were a bot? And in fact, Dr Sherry could have been a computer program who, like the bot waiter, would have been able to ask questions about life on the mud.

 The Dr. Sherry experience was uncanny in two ways. It was like Philip Roth in Operation Shylock literally coming across someone representing himself as Philip Roth. Then again, maybe my double was a bot, not a person. That opens out onto a set of questions about having our agents on-line. More and more people are going to have representations of themselves on the Internet. My agent will talk to your agent. They will have an interaction that communicates something of our interests.

HB: So our interview could have taken place bot to bot.

ST: In fact, the Media Lab at MIT was seriously considering giving everyone attending their tenth anniversary event a badge with a chip containing certain information. When people shook hands, the information would be exchanged.

HB: They are ready to do this? This is not conceptual art?

ST: This is being discussed. Or when I come close to someone whose badge resonates with mine, our badges would twinkle, indicating we had something in common — we both worked for Microsoft, say, or were from Brooklyn or were interested in interactive fiction.

The notion that we are about to become cyborgs, in the sense of representing ourselves through objects that go out and interact with other objects, is part of the brave new world. Our bodies, these objects and our minds start to fuse.

HB: You're saying that in the tension between identity and change, the computer loads the dice on one side. You talk about how, for Piaget, it was an eternal psychological truth that children would make certain distinctions between things at a certain time in their lives and you say, no more, not after those children have played with transformer toys.

ST: My work has to do with the history of technology, how technology changes the way we think about ourselves and our identity. We've always projected ourselves into our objects. But I think there is a qualitative difference when you have objects out there representing you and interacting with others, when you can meet your double and it could be a bot.

HB: We can get at this by saying the culture is going is going in a certain direction and the computer is its emblem. Or we can say, the computer is the engine for the changes in the culture.

ST: I don't think the computer is the engine; there are a lot of other engines. On the other hand, the computer is an enabler, a catalyst, a carrier object.

HB: You write that what beasts were to Darwin and dreams were to Freud, the computer is to our time.

ST: Emerson called these test objects; I call them objects to think with. They are objects that both characterize and carry the dominant cultural questions. You think through the conscious and the unconscious by thinking about dreams and reality. You think about nature and evolution by thinking about beasts. And you think about a set of questions that we have come to think of as the postmodernist questions by considering the computer.

HB: For many people, the word "postmodernism" is tainted, a piece of academic jargon, grist for the Ph.D. mill.

ST: I can get at it best by talking autobiographically. I was in Paris in the sixties. My mother had died when I was going through college, and I left this country to go to France where I did housework and studied at the Institute d'Etudes Politiques. I was introduced to Jaques Lacan and to all of that, to structuralism and poststructuralism. I learned that sex was an exchange of signifiers and that we are not one but many.

I wanted so much to belong to this world — I loved Paris — and I became quite skillful at manipulating the language. But it was only a language, the somewhat arcane, referent-free language of postmodernism. Which is how a lot of people experience it.

And then I began to learn about computers and play with MUD environments, where sexual congress is just the exchange of words and signification, and where you play out the notion of multiplicity as you cycle through many MUDs. The computer took difficult ideas — Derrida, French, obscure, maybe everybody talking it wearing black — and made them obvious.

HB: How does it happen that French thinkers anticipate in theory what is played out several decades later in American technology?

ST: Well, Lacan read the early cyberneticians and had a sense of a powerful emerging discourse. In my first conversations with Lacan, he talked about computers, cybernetics and MIT. I don't know how to evaluate the thoroughness of his knowledge but I do know that deep metaphors about the computer, about language and code, are at the foundation of what we call postmodern, post-structural thought.

HB: There's some mystery about how this works. Think of the popularity of 'zines in the eighties, so many people putting out their personal 'zine. The 'zines were in some ways Web sites before there was a Web. They were multi-media — texts, graphics, cartoons. And, then, two or three years later, along comes the Web — true multi-media, text, graphics, video, sound, and everybody is putting up a personal Web page. Again, as if culture anticipates technology.

ST: Perhaps 'zines needed to be in harmony with this technology in order to have their cultural power. The kind of thinking used on the Web, associative thinking, used to be called foggy. We now have a new word for it — it's hypertext. We have books written about it, programs to help us do it, a technology that enables and supports it.

HB: You write, "The lessons of computing today have little to do with calculation and rules: they are about simulation, navigation, and interaction."

ST: I contrast that to modernism, which still has the enlightenment notion that you unpack things in order to understand how they work according to a certain mechanical model.

One of the things I'm going to be working on most in the future, one of the ideas I'm most churned up about, is that of survivor discourses, discourses that go from one era to another. Psychoanalysis is an example of a survivor discourse. It has firm roots in a tradition where you open the box, peer inside, and arrive at a mechanistic understanding of parts. Psychoanalysis is one of the great meta-narratives of modernism. But Jaques Lacan and object-relations take psychoanalysis and push it into the postmodernist frame.

I think the same thing is true of the computer. Computation and artificial intelligence, and the sciences of mind that go with computation, are survivor discourses in that they grow out of the modernist into postmodernist era, they bridge the modernist-postmodernist gap. I think this is a very important phenomenon because we're not out of the modernist era. The fabric of most of life, the kind of reasoning that people use, belong to that era: open the black box and understand the whole in terms of the working of the parts.

Computation feeds both fantasies. For some people it corresponds to being able to get down to the zeroes and ones, to the ultimate circuitry, the code that underlies and explains it all. But computation also corresponds to postmodernist rules of indeterminacy that say you can never get to the ultimate zero and one. Things are happening at a level of complexity that will never allow you find the reason.

This survivor quality of both psychoanalysis and computation is powerful because it corresponds to the world we live in. We're not just living in postmodernism; we're living in a moment of tension, a moment of betwixt and between that is most evocative. Life on the Screen reflects this division. I wanted narrative, I wanted old-fashioned structure in that book; I wanted something to pin me down as I tried to describe what was ultimately ineffable.

And I think that's where we are now, trying to tell ourselves modernist stories in a postmodernist era.

HB: I share a lot of your enthusiasm. I'm seduced by the postmodernist breakdown between genres and by multi-media. I'm absolutely seduced by breakdowns between art and life. But I also have a worry. Maybe one way of expressing it is to go back to the story of the little boy who just wanted to play with a truck and found out he had his hands full of cosmic goo. I'm afraid he grew up to become a fundamentalist so that he could make sure the lines between things were drawn tight, the boundaries were hard and fast and there was no confusion. After the girl told him there are no trucks, there is only yucky computer cy-dough-plasm, he probably began to suspect computers, he may have decided to avoid girls, and he definitely took it into his head to hate cy-dough-plasm, whatever that is, in all its forms.

I'm saying that in our culture, as postmodernism gathers steam, so does fundamentalism.

ST: I agree with you. I tell the story about an AI conference where they're debating about the code and us, the fantastic code, the evolving code, the code that is any day about to jump out of the computer. I go home, turn on the tube, and the television is replaying that afternoon's Oprah: a bunch of Creationists are arguing against teaching Darwin in high school.

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