Turkle, The Second Self

Sherry. The Second Self : Computers and the Human Spirit. 1984.
Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005.

Working in the early 1980’s, Turkle undertakes an extended ethnographic study
over six years to explore the relationships between people and computers (and
other electronic devices). Involving graduate students from her "Computers and
People" seminar at MIT, Turkle interviewed over 400 people, while working toward
a more nuanced understanding of computers not as mechanistic instruments or
tools, but as psychological machines that defy commonplaces distinctions
between object and subject. Turkle seeks to challenge status
quo conceptions about computers as analytical engines and instead introduce
models of mind
with much subtler gradations between human and computer,
between the mental and mechanical. First published in 1984, the volume was
re-released for its 20th anniversary.

In the first third of the book, Turkle works primarily with young people and
in so doing, she explains three stages of computational development (or
sociomechanicognitive development related to interactions with computers):
, enactive (toward control and mastery), and
. In chapter one, Turkle interviews young "philosopher"
children who are attempting to make sense of the life-presence in intelligent
games. She revisists theories of animism and aliveness. Setting out
from Piaget’s classical model of physical motion (and sometimes speech)
as an indicator of life, Turkle suggests that computers challenge children to
involve psychological criteria for explaining their encounters with electronic
devices (48). Specific examples include frustration resulting from the Speak and
Spell "bug" (39) and removing the batteries to kill or crash the machine (41).

In chapter two, Turkle discusses the "holding power" of video games.
She touches on addiction, offers a brief history of gaming (75), and mentions
ties to Dungeons and Dragons and pinball. Chapter three returns to the stages.
Here, she discusses the enactive or mastery stage of development, interviewing
child programmers and exploring the factors affecting computers in formal
educational settings. The final stage–identity–figures into chapter four.
Turkle takes up issues of identity and play, suggesting that adolescents tend to
be more consumed with control in the microworlds supported by computer

In the middle third of the book, Turkle keys on 1975 as a catalyzing moment
for the personal computer boom (156). Chapter six is devoted to
and hacking culture (more on passion, mastery, and identity).
Chapter seven covers artificial intelligence and emphasizes emergence
as a glue-concept that complicates the extreme positions on AI as plausible or
faulty. She also mentions a Dartmouth Conference (the "other" Dartmouth Conf.?)
on AI in the summer of ’56 (221). Nuanced discussions of AI, Turkle argues, blur
the distinctions between objective and subjective.

Key terms: computational metaphors (3), second self (5), sense of self (5),
emergence (8, 253), transparency (9), anxiety (15), V. Turner’s "liminal moment"
(15), instrumental computer (19), subjective computer (19), metaphysical machine
(21), psychological machine (21, 62), technological determinism (26), marginal
objects (34), animism (37), clouds (44), Piaget (45), novelty bias (51, 320),
cognitive/affective distinction (57), emotion (63), holding power (66), video
games (66), simulated worlds (80), styles of mastery (101), bricolage (102),
microworld and control (141), computer models of how people think (223),
anthropomorphization (248), models of mind (267, 271), Norman on slips (273),
object relations (287), relational artifacts (288), boundary objects (290),
Polanyi against "objectivity" (281).

Machinym: The Sims (13), Merlin (33), Speak and Spell (38), ELIZA (42-43),
Asteroids (63), Pac Man (68), pinball (70), Joust (74), Dungeons and Dragons
(78), Adventure (205), Tron (251), Tamagotchis (289), Furby (290), Aibo (290),
Real Baby (290).

"The Second Self documents a moment in history when people from all
walks of life (not just computer sciences and artificial intelligence
researchers) were first confronted with machines whose behavior and mode
of operation invited psychological interpretation and that, at the same
time, incited them to think differently about human thought,
, and understanding. In consequence, they came to see both
their minds and computational machines as strangely unfamiliar or ‘uncanny
in the sense that Sigmund Freud had defined it. For Freud, the uncanny (das
) was that which is ‘known of old and long familiar’ seen
anew, as strangely unfamiliar" (1).

"In The Second Self I was writing against the common
view that the computer was ‘just a tool,’ arguing for us to look beyond
all the things the computer does for us (for example, help with word
processing and spreadsheets) to what using it does to us as people"

"Most considerations of the computer describe it as rational, uniform,
constrained by logic. I look at the computer in a different light, not in terms
of its nature as an ‘analytical engine,’ but in terms of its ‘second
nature’ as an evocative object that fascinates, disturbs
, and precipitates thought" (19).

"My style of inquiry here is ethnographic. My goal: to study
computer cultures
by living within them, participating when possible
in their lives and rituals, and by interviewing people who could help me
understand things from the inside" (25).

"For me, one of the most important cultural effects of the computer
presence is that the machines are entering into our thinking about ourselves"

"The physical is used to understand things, the
to understand people and animals. But the
is a new kind of object–psychological, yet a thing" (34).

"Children are not always sure whether [computers and other
interactive electronic objects] are alive or not alive, but it is clear,
even to the youngest child, that movement is not the key to the puzzle.
Children perceive the relevant criteria not as physical or mechanical, but as
: Are their electronic games aware, are they conscious, do they
have feelings, do they play fair, to they cheat?" (47).

"It is difficult to imagine [Jarish, one who expresses his "love" for games]
playing anything like Pac-Man or Joust when he is thirty"

"With adolescence, there is a return to reflection, but this
time reflection is insistently about the self. The questions of the first stage,
What is this machine?, and of the second, What can I do with it?,
give way to Who am I?" (131).

"[T]he idea of emergence is a key element that breaks down
to seeing mind as machine" (254).

"The computer is a new mirror, the first psychological machine.
Beyond its nature as an analytical engine lies its second nature as an
evocative object
" (279).

"Computers, with their reactivity and interactivity,
stand in a novel and evocative relationship between the living
and the inaminate
" (288).

"Relational artifacts ask their users to see them not as tools
but as companions, as subjects in their own right" (289).

"Relationships with computational creatures and immersion in
computer games put us in closed microworlds that are nowhere near as
complex and full of contradiction as the worlds of human interaction. To say
that computational microworlds do not teach us what we need to know about
, ambivalence, about life in shades of gray, does not
diminish their contribution. It only puts them in their place" (298).

"The study of child animism has two aspects: the study of
children’s judgments about the ‘aliveness’ of objects and the study of
how the attribution of aliveness (or properties of life) to inanimate
objects enters into children’s thinking" (315).

Related sources:
Dreyfus, Hubert. What Computers Can’t Do: The Limits of Artificial
. 2nd Ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.
Hofstadter, Douglas. Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid.
New York: Basic Books, 1978.
Piaget, Jean. The Child’s Conception of the World. Totowa, N.J.:
Littlefield Adams, 1975.