Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet | Study Guide

Sherry Turkle

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Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet | Context


Cultural Studies and Technology

Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, which explores the impact of technology on society, falls into the category of cultural studies. Cultural studies is an interdisciplinary field that includes elements of sociology, anthropology, historiography, art and literary criticism, gender studies, and philosophy. It thus stands at the border of the humanities and the social sciences. One of the most intriguing aspects of cultural studies is its examination of the relationship between society and technology. This relationship has been especially prominent in the field since the development of the Internet in the second half of the 20th century.

Technological advances have exerted a major impact on culture at least since the invention of writing sometime around the 3rd millennium BCE. More recently the invention of new communications media, such as the telegraph, radio, and television, has had a major influence on society at large. During the 18th and 19th centuries in the West, the myriad inventions of the Industrial Revolution strongly shaped how and where millions of people lived. The shift from rural agricultural existence to urbanization was an unambiguous indication of the impact of industrialization on society.

More recently, the rapid spread of mobile (cell) phone communication has altered lifestyles across the world, as well as people's social and commercial linkages. Mobile phones are now ubiquitous, even in rural regions of developing countries. Inexpensive connectivity has broadened economic opportunity for farmers in India, small businesspeople in Kenya, and merchants in Latin America.

Interpreting such rapid change has proved both challenging and provocative. Many analysts have praised the rapid growth of the Internet, for example. Other observers, however, have been more skeptical, asserting that "life on the screen" is a mixed blessing.

Development of the Internet

The Internet is often defined as a "system architecture" that has revolutionized communications worldwide, or as a "network of networks." Essentially, it facilitates the interconnection of various computer networks. The Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA) of the U.S. Department of Defense first developed Internet technology in the late 1960s. However, the Internet only emerged publicly in the 1980s and 1990s, when personal computers became affordable and popular.

The early 1990s marked a turning point in the growth of the Internet. This pivotal milestone was the invention of the World Wide Web. The Web was the key to rapid commercialization and the availability of information. An immense social impact of this change was soon evident in many areas of life: economic, political, legal, and educational. By the year 2020, almost 30 years after its invention, the World Wide Web was estimated to include at least 1.7 billion websites.

The most basic activities of life have been altered by the Internet, and Life on the Screen examines how the Internet is changing our habits of mind and the way we see ourselves. For example, reading on an electronic screen is substantially different from reading a printed book. Entertainment provided by a video game differs from traditional recreational activities. Classroom education in schools has been profoundly affected by computer technology. Millions of people now shop "online," rather than at old-fashioned brick-and-mortar stores and malls. Politicians now use the Internet to garner both funds and votes. In the 21st century, in which the Internet still seems to be in its infancy, prophecies proliferate as to what the electronic future may bring.

Pros and Cons of Virtual Reality

Virtual reality (VR) is often defined as the interaction between human beings and computer-generated environments. The rapid growth of VR has prompted a lively debate about its advantages and disadvantages. Some advocates support VR as a viable alternative to real life, while others criticize it as a damaging vehicle for escapism and even addiction.

In VR settings, the user is typically outfitted with one or more aids, such as headsets, goggles, gloves, or body suits. These items are equipped with sensors to detect the slightest movement. The sensors, in turn, allow users to explore three-dimensional environments as if they were actually present ("telepresence"). They can walk through a sequence of simulated rooms, experience different environments, and even grasp and manipulate three-dimensional objects that they encounter.

The development of VR technology was closely related to the American space program and to research at the U.S. Department of Defense. However, the prohibitively high expenses this technology required restricted VR to narrow, specialist applications. VR suddenly experienced an explosion of popularity in 2016, when prices had declined and products became more appealing to the public. In that year alone, three popular VR products appeared on the market: Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and Sony's PlayStation VR. A broad range of applications enhanced VR's appeal, with users from the fields of architecture, entertainment, medicine, sports, and the arts. Nevertheless, as Sherry Turkle shows in Life on the Screen, ethical issues of accountability continue to confront us in a culture of simulation.

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