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Very few and far
between are the people who can still remember a life without computers. We
now use computer technology without a thought as to the way in which the
machine functions, and we even frequently refer to human behaviour in terms of
computational metaphors. Although when Sherry Turkle published the first
edition of The Second Self, just over twenty years ago, things were actually
quite different. The Second Self is a ground-breaking exploration of the
role of the computer in our lives at a time when the personal computer was just
an emerging trend, accessible to a rather limited group of people. Turkle was
one of the few researchers to take interest in the ways in which computers can
impact on our psychological development and our relationships to others. Taking
cues from Piaget, Levy-Strauss, Freud, Hume and Rogers she conducted interviews
and observations with children, new and experienced users of computer technology
in order to determine how the machines, and the use we make of them, might
affect our being in the world.
A very thorough
and ambitious study, The Second Self still relied on a number of
predictions that couldn't
possibly have taken into account how fast the technology would evolve and
spread. Indeed, the author's
belief that teaching programming to children would allow them to build identity
and self-esteem more or less fell through as knowledge of programming is now
optional, if not entirely superfluous, when it comes to using most computers.
Actually, much of her argument according to which computers could have a
positive impact on our lives on the basis of our having a measure of control
over them, as a tool, that could extend into developing a sense of control in
the wider world now seems rather quaint. Indeed, the wonderful world of I.T. as
envisioned by Turkle was, in 1984, one of transparency in which all users had a
knowledge of the machine's
functions and capabilities and were able to use them in order to palliate to
their own weaknesses. Reading The Second Self now we are reminded that only
twenty years ago all instructions had to be typed in, programmed down to the
last bracket. There were no user friendly interfaces, replete with icons on which
we could just click in order for a line of code, the details of which we ignore,
to be applied.
people still have programming knowledge, their work focuses more and more on
creating functions and programs so others don't need to know how to use code. Transparency is now in the hands of
an elite group of people who can consecrate their entire professional lives to
following the development of a technology that evolves at unprecedented speed,
the likes of which a dabbler couldn't possibly keep up with. Turkle had foreseen computer technology as a
cognitive experience, an ultimate heuristic tool the use of which could help
the development of identity and self-esteem, as well as social processes and
political views. But, for her vision to have evolved it would have been
necessary for the processes behind the use of the machines to still be at the
forefront of our activities, yet computers have gradually made the processes more
and more invisible. By doing so, their status has slipped from that of a tool --
an extension of their users, according to Marxist thought -- to that of a machine
which imposes its rules and rhythms to its users.
In spite of this
somewhat shaky position, which she has had the opportunity to revisit in other
publications as well as in the new introduction written for the special
edition, the psychological and sociological angle of Turkle's study remains rather unique, and its
validity can hardly be dismissed. Hence, the pertinence of a twentieth-century
edition that allows the author to revise technological inaccuracies and to
further her reflection on the impact of computing on our daily lives cannot be
denied. This edition also boasts a rather intriguing epilogue, which centres on
artificial intelligence. More care to the impact of Internet might have been of
great interest, especially when it comes to the ways in which the World Wide
Web has redefined our idea of communication as well as our perception of the
self and others; yet her foray into artificial intelligence has the seeds of
what could be an upcoming book. Indeed, Turkle introduces research on our
emotional response to robots that could lead to great metaphysical and ethical
issues. In short what this book demonstrates is that more research, in social
science, needs to be done in order to better understand the impact that
technology, and the uses we make of it, has on our lives.
© 2006 Martine
Rouleau is Tate Fellow at the London Consortium (Birkbeck College, University of London) where she is currently a PhD candidate. She obtained a Masters in
Communication from the Université du Québec à Montréal in 2002.
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