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 2, Chapter 6 : Of Dreams and Beasts (Artificial Life as the New Frontier) | Summary

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Key Takeaways

  • Turkle begins this chapter with a brief discussion of a computer program devised in the mid-1980s by British biologist Richard Dawkins. The program, called "The Blind Watchmaker," stressed the development over time of complex forms from simple origins.
  • Turkle defines artificial life (A-Life) as the "discipline of building organisms and systems that would be considered alive if found in nature." The first Conference on Artificial Life was held in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 1987. American scientist Christopher Langton, the conference organizer, compared the new research effort on A-Life to the Copernican Revolution during the Renaissance in the 16th century. In that paradigm shift, Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus propounded the theory—considered revolutionary at the time—that Earth and the other planets orbit the sun. Before Copernicus, virtually everyone believed Earth to be the center of the cosmos.
  • After the 1987 conference, Turkle remarks, a consensus began to develop about artificial life. Organisms must present four qualities to qualify as A-Life: evolution by natural selection, a genetic program, a high level of complexity, and self-organization.
  • Turkle notes that, in the relatively brief history of A-Life research, the topic presents a paradox. A-Life has posed a far more blatant challenge to the uniqueness of human intelligence than AI ever has, but it is being received much less personally and more neutrally.
  • In the next subsection of this chapter, Turkle devotes some discussion to the "Game of Life," a computer program created by British mathematician John Conway in the late 1960s. After briefly describing the game, Turkle comments that it was especially influential for Christopher Langton. She adds that Langton's experience may be regarded as a "founding myth" for the entire field of artificial life. In particular, A-Life involves people from the margins of established institutions. In addition, A-Life is charged by "moments of epiphany." Turkle remarks that personal computers have enabled a radical "democratization of discovery." Breakthroughs are no longer necessarily the work of experts. They may be the work of amateurs.
  • "Genetic algorithms" are strings of randomly generated zeros and ones that may be considered a chromosome. Through the analysis of genetic algorithms, A-Life researchers can examine the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of years of evolution.
  • Next, Turkle turns to consider "Tierra," a computer program developed by American biologist Thomas Ray. Ray's personal story parallels that of Langton, involving key elements of marginality and epiphany. Tierra was heralded by the media. Ray believed that he had created life.
  • Turkle comments that today the line between simulation and reality is blurred more than ever. We are fascinated by the notion that artificial creatures might actually exist in the world. Turkle discusses the Sim games: SimLife, SimCity, and SimAnt. The creatures in simulated space challenge children to devise a new language to talk about them. Turkle points out that appropriation and resistance are typically two sides of the same coin. We reinforce boundaries when borders are challenged, but at the same time, we blur them. Turkle identifies this behavior as a "complex double movement."
  • Turkle next considers "transformer toys," mechanical objects that entered child culture in the early 1980s. These toys, originally imported from Japan, encouraged children to play at "morphing," or experimenting with different shapes. For example, the toys included trains and trucks that could change into robots, which in turn could change into animals. Turkle remarks that children's reactions to A-Life objects are "strikingly heterogeneous."
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