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 | Part 1, Chapter 2 : The Seductions of the Interface (The Triumph of Tinkering) | Summary


Key Takeaways

  • Turkle opens this chapter by recalling her student days in the late 1960s in Paris, where she concentrated on history and political theory. In particular, she remembers with distaste her French composition class, which was compulsory for foreigners. She humorously juxtaposes her "creativity" with "Gallic rigidity."
  • At Harvard a decade later, the concept of computers as "giant calculators" was still orthodox. This concept went hand in hand with a method known as "structured programming." Competing with this top-down approach, however, was a bottom-up method more compatible with bricolage. Turkle relates a pair of anecdotes about two college classmates in order to illustrate the intuitive approach of bricolage. "Bricoleurs," writes Turkle, "approach problem-solving by entering into a relationship with their work materials." This relationship is more like a conversation than a monologue.
  • Next, Turkle devotes some comments to Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget and French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. She finds both these thinkers paradoxical in that they both discovered the power of the concrete but then marginalized that power by prioritizing theory. She also comments on the usage of "hard" and "soft" in the field of computer programming and computer culture as a whole.
  • Turkle devotes the next section to brief discussions of American psychologist Carol Gilligan and American geneticist Barbara McClintock. Gilligan became well-known for her inquiries into how children handle moral dilemmas. McClintock spoke of her Nobel Prize-winning work as a conversation with her materials. Her style conflicted with the "formal, hard methods of molecular biology."
  • Turkle observes that changes are rife in the developing computer culture. In the 1990s software programs are produced in the form of a simulation of some reality—playing chess or creating an architectural drawing, for example. The computer, Turkle says, is still a tool, but "less like a hammer and more like a harpsichord."
  • Commenting on the traditional male-dominated computer culture, Turkle emphasizes that the potential has appeared for a more welcoming environment to "women, humanists, and artists in the technical culture."
  • Whereas pluralism in the computer culture once meant a diversity of programming styles, this word now connotes the fact that people respond to simulation in different ways. Turkle devotes considerable space to the reactions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to an innovative university initiative, Project Athena. This was an effort to make a broad range of computer programs accessible to students for classroom use across the board. Faculty reactions differed. In the School of Architecture and Planning, for instance, professors sharply disagreed on the issue of computer-aided design tools. Computer programs and usage also triggered sharp debate in the chemistry and physics departments.
  • Turkle then turns to the topic of video games. From the late 1970s onward, video games brought computer culture into everyday life. Early video games had clear sets of rules. As the genre developed, however, games became so sophisticated and complicated that an entire industry of fan magazines and electronic billboards sprang up around them. Graphics, animation, sound, and interactivity enhance the realistic simulation in games. In some games, such as Myst, rules have given way to "branching narratives." Myst is set on a surreal desert island. One 18-year-old player said that playing the game "doesn't feel so much like solving a puzzle as living in a puzzle." Significantly, no manual comes with the game. Instead, there is a blank journal in which a player can record his or her Myst life. As a nine-year-old player commented, "Here you explore."
  • Turkle concludes this chapter with a series of brief anecdotes in which her informants express their reactions to Sim games, another popular product. The goal of these games is not necessarily to win, but to build a community. Turkle asserts that games like SimLife "teach players to think in an active way about complex phenomena." These games involve an abdication of authority and an acceptance of opacity. Turkle comments that an open question remains as to how far we are willing to take simulations.
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