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 | Main Ideas


Exploring Identities

In Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, author Sherry Turkle argues that contemporary technology, especially widespread use of computers, has had a notable impact on how we see ourselves. The Internet is changing our habits of mind. In particular, it affords us the opportunity to assume virtual identities, or "personae," which may be entirely different from our real-life identities. Such opportunities are especially apparent in people's use of MUDs, or Multi-User Domains. In MUDs, users can assume a different gender, explore virtual worlds, create their own life story, and remain anonymous. Turkle argues that such exploration can be psychotherapeutic, or it may function as an unconstructive or damaging escape valve.

The growing interest in exploring alternative identities, Turkle argues, coincides with the "aesthetic" or value set of postmodernism. This is a cultural development associated with skepticism, fragmentation, playfulness, and simulation of the real. Thus, computer users have come to accept the "interface" or screen as reality. They do so although they may know deep down that the screen is simply a handy, functional tool. The culture of simulation dovetails with the willingness of computer enthusiasts to adopt alternate selves. Multiple identities are no longer regarded as eccentric or outlandish.

Participation in MUDs may yield constructive results, as people utilize an alternate world in which to work through personal troubles. On the other hand, as Turkle shows in her analysis of various case studies, certain MUD users' experience is negative, rather than positive. Turkle suggests that users with positive experiences benefit from what American psychoanalyst Erik Erikson called a "psychosocial moratorium." Turkle also references the arguments of American psychoanalyst and sociologist Robert Jay Lifton in his book The Protean Self: Human Resilience in an Age of Fragmentation (1993). Lifton strongly supported the concept that healthy humans could have multiple "selves."

Challenging Boundaries

Throughout her book, Turkle places special emphasis on the ways in which modern computer culture continues to challenge boundaries or borders. Such challenges are especially noticeable in the growing body of research into artificial intelligence (AI) and artificial life (A-Life). The Turing test, developed in 1950 by the British mathematician and logician Alan Turing, is a convenient starting point for distinguishing between machines and human beings. Ever since Turing laid out criteria for such a distinction, there has been a debate over whether or not a computer can "think." Curiously, the overall reaction to whether any machine-made object can be considered "alive" has been more neutral and pragmatic.

Gender substitution and transgression is another example of how modern computer culture is blurring boundaries or borders. When Turkle constructed an online personae for the first time, she considered being a virtual man might be more comfortable than being a virtual woman. In a number of case studies and anecdotes, Turkle reports the gender-crossing profiles of computer users who assumed a different gender in their explorations of virtual reality.

As she explores the topic of challenging boundaries in the computer age, Turkle acknowledges that the blurring of borders is a two-sided coin. When people challenge a boundary, a separation, or a distinction, they may become even more explicitly aware of its traditional existence. Turkle reports, for example, that a program called Project Athena, in which the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) attempted to make computer programs and hardware widely available to students, provoked intense debate among faculty members. Some professors opposed the initiative because they considered that simulation would encourage students' detachment from real life.

Experiencing the Virtual

Turkle defines virtual reality (VR) as a computer's simulation of a three-dimensional environment with which a user can interact in a seemingly real or physical way. She devotes a major part of Life on the Screen to investigating the pros and cons of VR, in particular by contrasting it with real life. This topic leads us back to the advantages and disadvantages of MUDs. Turkle considers whether, on the whole, MUDs are beneficial. She observes that they afford users an alternative space and offer them the chance to assume a completely different identity. Are they psychotherapeutic or do they represent a form of escapism? What are the ethics posed by actions in VR, such as rape or murder, that would be deplored and punished in real life as serious crimes? Turkle wrestles with such difficult questions and provides illuminating discussion.

Virtual reality is not limited to MUDs. Video games and other types of computer entertainment have played major roles in bringing computer culture into millions of households. Turkle pays special attention to the ways in which children and young adults react to such diversions. In a discussion of the game Myst, for example, she reports the comment of one 18-year-old player: "It doesn't feel so much like solving a puzzle as living in a puzzle." The journal that comes with the game exhorts players, "You must let Myst become your world."

Anthropologists and sociologists over the past few decades have noted that the traditional "great good places" such as the local bar, bistro, and coffee shop have yielded to life on the screen. Virtual reality, in the view of some optimists, may serve to counteract this social trend by giving people alternatives. Skeptical observers, however, point out that it is hard to conclude that a sense of community may be reestablished by people sitting alone in front of their screens. The virtual and the real provide different things. Turkle cautions that the virtual may deceive us into thinking that it is more fulfilling than it really is.

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