Selections from Sherry Turkle

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Sherry Turkle


Main Article: Sherry Turkle

Sherry Turkle is a Social Studies of Science and Technology professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as well as a sociologist. She is a psychologist and digital technology researcher and is well known for her research on relationships between people and technology, primarily computer technology. This, also, includes the impact of technology such as "sociable robots" on society. Two of her works regarding these topics, Who Am We? and Programmed for Love, are discussed here. [1]

Discussion Questions/Prompts

What are the advantages and disadvantages of the advancement in communication technology (e.g. texting, chatrooms) as hinted by Sherry Turkle and real-life examples?

Sherry Turkle hinted in "Who Am We?" that there are both advantages and disadvantages to the revolution in communication technology that has occurred with the advent of the Internet and high-bandwidth network infrastructure.

Throughout the text, Turkle makes reference to the way in which creating new identities in MUDs can potentially help an individual improve themselves in real life; this point seems to be the major benefit derived from the existence of Internet-based communication media. Communication technology such as the internet has the potential to link millions of people together. These days any person in the world can basically communicate with any other person in the world at any time, if they have the correct means. Ideas can be shared around the world almost instantly, and this efficiency can be the catalyst for individual calculations and work.

However, in practice, Turkle notes that this often does not occur, and instead participation in MUDs, for instance, can decrease one's self-esteem and ruin relationships. Turkle claims technology can lead to a world of simulation. The ability to be anyone in the cyber world draws in those who aren't satisfied with reality. This is a drawback as the cyber world will discourage people to interact with each other in the real world. Plaguing our self-once-uniform-identity into outbreaks of various projections of our emotions-- humans are no longer individuals in sociological terms, but only in the physical terms. The possibility arises that people in future generations may lose the ability to socialize without the shield of a screen and keyboard. . Turkle points out the growing interactions from youth to adulthood are subconsciously skewing users’ distinction from machine/person qualities. Kids play computer games as if some aspects of the machine are real, interacting with animated objects that act alive. This has a profound role in maturing adolescence psychology as clearly characterized by ‘matured’ 23-year old physics graduate, “a 21-year-old college senior”, and “a 26 year old clerical worker,” when interviewed about their life in MUDs. These matured adolescents have taken a step further from interacting to inanimate objects to interacting with real-inanimate objects which are projections of other human’s minds. A 21 year old College senior states: “...Frankly I’d rather rape on MUD’s where no harm is done”. Clearly this user acknowledges the ethical implication of raping in reality, yet a trait that would normally be suppressed by a real society on Earth is exposed and shamelessly expressed with regards to ‘the virtual world. ’In the case of Stewart, an active MUD user whom Turkle interviewed, any attempts at self-betterment were ineffective, the only outcome being something akin to an addiction. As this issue is concisely summarized, "Although [Stewart] hoped that MUDs would cure him, it is MUDs that now make him feel sick." People like Stewart lose the ability to communicate outside from the internet. Stewart's character Achilles is confident, smooth, and love by many; this is the opposite of Stewart's life. This causes Stewart to suffer the pains of reality unlike the great life of Achilles. This issue can only get worse as communication becomes even easier to do virtually. He has become a victim of the mask the internet provides for “socially awkward” people. These same ‘socially awkward people are the ones that contribute to diversity in social cultures and potentially start new trends. Yet with a fake identity Achilles, he is able to pretend to be normal rather than actually being normal or defying it --like the geeks and nerds that tribute to our current pop-culture of today. With internet interaction facilitated by MUDs generating online societies of single users that are hidden behind multiple masks, society of what once was only centered on physical interaction which allowed genuine physical interpretation is being disintegrating with no respect to nature and how things were intended for biological systems.

In "Programmed for Love," Sherry Turkle hints out some advantages of the advancement in communication technology. This includes being connected to more people than ever before such as checking emails and social networks like Facebook. However, she claims that some disadvantages are that people are drawn to this communication technology that they lose the physical aspect of socializing. Thus, they are too drawn to this technology that it has affected their ability to socialize physically.

Should a husband or wife be concerned if their spouse finds pleasure in virtual sex? Does the answer change if virtual sex includes pleasure from materials of a pornographic nature or simply virtual sex between another person?

In addition to MUDing, people also visit websites similar to TinySex, a virtual world where any user can display their erotic fantasies on screen. This hobby may appear like any normal pornographic addiction, but nevertheless this activity could be more harmful than people think. In TinySex, people write, direct, and act in their own pornographies from their computer, performing sexual experiments that may disgust the people around them. The disturbing idea is that anyone of any age or gender could be in the cyber bedroom. More problems occur when spouses of married couples partake in this game. This action appears disrespectful to his or her true lover and implies that the opposing partner cannot fulfill his or her sexual imaginations. A spouse should be concerned if their spouse finds pleasure in virtual sex, because though it is not in person, the virtual sex takes place with a real person. It is a method of cheating in a relationship emotionally, rather than physically. Turkle concludes that no matter how society lives their lives in the virtual world, their computer-generated persona is meaningless. However, if their virtual sex is with another real person, then there are definitely worries for a spouse.

Virtual sex in any form is detrimental to a relationship. Some forms are more destructive than others, but all are negative. The idea of interacting with others outside one's own relationship on a sexual level, even over the internet in a "virtual" setting, shows a disrespect for the sanctity of a relationship between two partners. The idea of a relationship is that the partners are receiving everything they need from each other on a physical, mental, and emotional level. The "need" or rather desire for either partner to be engaging in cyber sex reflects not only a weak relationship, but one that the partner is not willing to work on, and would rather take the easy route and seek to make up for unfulfilled desires elsewhere. An unwillingness to work towards a stronger relationship due to mere convenience through the internet's resources is both lazy and reflective that a partner is not truly invested in his or her relationship. This makes a relationship much more likely to fail. It is both dangerous and saddening to realize that a person may turn to virtual sex to fulfill some emotion, even if that emotion is lust, mainly considering that a computer program cannot convey human emotion. It may simulate the physical nature of sex, but it cannot truly fulfill the emotional nature.

A husband or wife should be worried if their spouses find pleasure in virtual sex, no matter what the nature. Even though it is not technically cheating, the spouse engaging in virtual sex is finding pleasure in sex with something else other than their spouse. When married, sexual satisfaction should be coming from the spouse, and finding it elsewhere can lead to real problems. In normal cheating situations, the spouse is often caught up in his or her new lover, leading to complications in the marriage, because not all of the thought is going towards the spouse. Although it is not a person, it can still distract the spouse from his or her spouse, which can lead to the same problems as normal cheating would. As far as the ideas of being alive and having a conscious, they go hand in hand. A computer simply cannot be alive or have a conscious, because to be alive means to have feelings and emotions. A conscious is something that is felt, and emotion is often used. A computer can simulate emotions with logarithms and programs, but it cannot show real true emotion, because true emotion is not a concrete thing, and cannot be placed into a computer chip.

Virtual sex is something that should not be considered a good thing in society. If a husband or wife finds pleasure in virtual sex it could possibly ruin their relationship. If the spouse finds pleasure in virtual sex it is not considered to be cheating but it could make the spouse become dependent on this virtual sex and forget about reality and sexual relationships with his or her other partner. If a person becomes dependent on this type of virtual sex they may forget what it is like to share it with another person and may not desire to have these kind of relationships with their partner which could end up resulting in a divorce and destroying a family.

In our society, there have been many broken homes due to pornography and other "virtual sex" venues.  However, there are two sides to the argument.  One side will say that it is cheating because one is seeking sexual pleasure from a source other than his or her spouse, while the other side argues that technology is lacking the "conscience" that we humans embody each and everyday.  This conscience includes deeper emotions of love, hate, arousal, etc.  So, to say that technology can be a replacement of humans in this light is assuming that it is possible to emulate this conscience.

This question raises a greater issue - to what extent is the virtual world becoming reality? An older school of thought that today's young adults may see in their parents or grandparents say that the virtual world is starkly separated from reality; virtual reality is simply not real. But as coming generations of humans are exposed to technology and its capabilities on such a large and lasting scale, the line between reality and virtual reality is extensively blurred. The existence of social communities online, whether through a MUD or something else, is an entirely new concept to humanity. Interaction with other living humans can be performed in a virtual environment with seemingly meaningless consequences. This of course, brings us to the question of virtual sex while in a committed relationship with another person. The consequences of virtual sex may seem minuscule in comparison to cheating on a spouse with another person, but these consequences do exist. The impact of virtual social communities on a human's mind must not be underestimated. Simply because social interaction occurs across an electronic platform does not mean that this social interaction does not hold just as much emotional weight as a "real life" social interaction.

Sherry Turkle proposes in "Programming for Love" that interaction with a robot can be viewed as a positive social connection or an act of "speaking to chimeras, showering affection into thin air." As technology progresses, will one of these perspectives become "truer" than the other? How will this shift in interaction with technology impact the average person?

In the article "Programmed for Love," Jeffrey Young notes with contributions from Turkle that the ubiquitous personal devices that keep people constantly connected - to the Internet, to others, and to their own digital presence - are potentially fulfilling their task too effectively. Specifically, it is suggested in the text that a large portion of younger generations are being adversely affected by the prevalence of communication technology. As Young quotes from Turkle's book Alone Together, "'We talk about 'spending' hours on e-mail, but we, too, are being spent.'" Additional proof to technology's advancement leading to the degradation of mankind's social aspects would be the accumulating death of "conversation," where strictly conversation would be defined as vocally interacting with another human being face-to-face or on the phone. Nowadays, people are often found texting during or on their way to class. From the article, proof can be found when a teenager explained to Turkle how a robot would at least remember what he had said compared "to his father, who often tapped at a BlackBerry during conversations."

 Some people say that the ideas in "Programming for Love" are partly true. In the future, a well designed robot might be able to create a false illusion to people interacting with them and make them think the robot has emotion and soul. Turkle worries that in the close future, these robots might bring about a negative impact on the social experience that is a part of human society.Turkle's point is valid since  AI technology is developing at a speed we never thought would be possible and one day it will make the simulation of the human mind possible. However, this concern for a future problem should not be linked to today's extensive use of social networking and e-mail. The "mind" inside a robot is a tiny chip, but the mind behind your blackberry and PC's screen is real. Even though we are communicating with each other by e-mail or Facebook, it doesn't mean we are talking to a combination of chips. This is still real social interaction between real people. The basis of these communication devices is to make communication between human beings easier. We can keep in touch with a dear friend that may be thousands of miles away. Sure, we would rather be face to face with our friend, but text messaging or instant messaging is a very powerful tool in maintaining and developing relationships. Again though, this is not the problem. Electronic communication is a powerful tool to keep in touch with our friends, but the question lies in the possibility that electronic messaging makes it easier for people to create relationships with things that may not be real. However, this danger is no more potent than it was fifty years ago. A lonely child twenty years ago with a doll stood just as much chance of developing an emotional connection with his or her toy as does a lonely child today of becoming "friends" with a video game character. Technology did not create this problem, it simply offered another outlet for it to occur.

In "Programming for Love," Sherry Turkle recognizes that human interactions with robots could have a either a positive social connection or a lack of connection leading to false relationships. As technology progresses, the later is more plausible. As humans develop technology, we try to make it more and more realistic. We mimic actions performed by humans and we create robots to do so. As robots develop to become more and more like humans in terms of the actions they perform, and they are built to embody a human in terms of looks, they will slowly become human-like to us. We will see them not as robots, but as friends. Because at this point we will see robots as friends, we will effectively be forming relationships with inanimate objects.

Turkle sees that her observations and conclusions that she had initially made in "Who Am We" were too optimistic about the social interactions between humans and technology. At first, in "Who Am We", she explored both the positives and negatives of communicating through technology; she interviewed different people who were either content with MUDing because it allowed them to express themselves more so on there than in real life, or were miserable and unsatisfied. She changes her views on communicating with and through technology, and her new conclusions can be read in the article "Programming for Love". She says that technology can cause people to become less satisfied with real life and become less involved in conversations and activities with real people.

Turkle sums up her own argument in "Who Am We" as "we are moving from 'a modernist culture of calculation to a postmodernist culture of simulation'," based on your understanding of the evidence presented in "Who Am We," what does this mean for our understanding of our bodies and our selves? How does relating to simulation alter the way we relate to our bodies and our society? How does "Programmed for Love" show how Turkle's understanding of the social implications of "simulation" has changed? Is Real life(RL) just another window?

When Turkle talks about moving from modernist to post modern, she is talking about changing the view of what technology can do for us. She gives a great example of professors at MIT in the 1970's saying that the computers were just large calculators, now they are much more than that, and can present artificial intelligence. The movement is understanding, and incorporating this new way of life into our current way of life. The players of MUDs live double lives, and both the real life, and their virtual life are extremely important to them.

As technology becomes increasingly integrated with our lives, real life is becoming more and more like a separate "window". Students at their desk switch between lecture notes online, Facebook, their iPod, and their homework as if they were all a part of one integrated system. Laptops and smart phones allow for even more integration between our real lives and our digital ones. The parents that Turkle talks about in "Programmed for Love" who send email during dinner switch from their real life window to their phone. This integration can be, in many ways, positive. However, if we don't follow certain rules of etiquette, technology could easily replace important social interactions in a negative way.

Both "Who Am We" and "Programmed for Love" discuss Turkle's research into how human beings relate to simulated minds. How might we compare Turkle's research subjects to the characters from "Flesh Made Word" or even "Winter Market?" How are the relationships Turkle's subjects have with machines the same as the relationships the characters have? How are they different?

When comparing Turkle's research subjects to characters from "The Winter Market," remarkable similarities and differences emerge. In "The Winter Market," Casey was disturbed by the notion that Lise, someone with whom he had made an emotional connection, had been digitally immortalized. The source of his ill feelings toward this process of digital "preservation" may have been that, although the mainframes on which these avatars existed were powerful enough to simulate the entirety of a person's mind, what was being simulated was still not quite alive. Turkle acknowledges this in "Who Am We?" when she mentions that modern adults do not question computers' "capacity for intelligence but on their capacity for life." Similarly, Russ in "Flesh Made Word" could easily converse with human simulation programs and even found himself impressed at the breadth of certain ones like Mosby, but he continually reminded Lynne, and indirectly the reader, that they were not alive and that they bore none of the humanity of the person in whose likeness they were made.

However, there exist stark differences between the interactions between humans and robots illustrated in Turkle's research and in "The Winter Market" and "Flesh Made Word." As mentioned previously, the general sentiment expressed in "The Winter Market" was that computerized individuals were not quite human; oppositely, Turkle found in "Who Am We?" that MUDders could easily interact with characters that, although created and manipulated by an actual human, were only presented to the MUDders through a computer. Additionally, Russ in "Flesh Made Word" refused to emotionally relate to human simulation programs, instead becoming disgusted with their attempts to convey human emotions. This contrasts with Turkle's research, in which many people (especially children) could easily connect with a robot simply by human cues that Russ would have found revolting in their crude imitation of actual humanity.

Actually, in "The Winter Market" computerized people appear to generally be considered identical to the originals. Casey is the only one in the story to question this. Rubin takes the opposite few and there is no reason to believe that he is wrong. An interesting question raised in "Who We Are" is the validity of a distinction between intelligence and life. Most people would agree that something can be living without possessing intelligence. However, Turkle was not discussing intelligence per se, but rather perceptions of intelligence. She mentions how views about computers have changed, even though their fundamental nature has not. Is intelligence an objective trait? Or is it merely in the eye of the beholder?

Also in "The Winter Market," Rubin seems as one of these MUD users. The junk he changes can have different uses than before. Like these online users they keep changing their personalities, like clothes. Rubin does the same thing with the items he makes. Also Lise, is a great example of wanting something that only technology can give her. Like the website TinySex people could do what they wanted, and things they couldn't do in real life. They could switch genders, give their characters courage, and other great qualities, which these people fail to posses in real life. Lise in this case, cannot hold her self as a human, but ends up shifting to the computer to guide her life. These people using the MUDs are doing the same thing. 

How does gender influence the virtual worlds Turkle describes, despite the fact that the bodies, with all their markers of gender, are absent from these worlds? What might this imply about gender?

Gender exists in the virtual world only as an influence from the real world. When someone is stated as being a certain gender, assumptions usually follow being labeled as such. Besides anatomical assumptions, there are also expectations of behavior. The examples of Case and Zoe are very good, as they both believe that certain behaviors by a certain gender should be seen negatively. It is because the interactions in those examples are between people who might be from different societies that a situation where conflicting beliefs can arise. If all of the people interacting in a virtual environment were from the same society, then they would have mostly the same beliefs about gender. As such, gender's influence is that of a label. The difference is that the label in reality is decided by one's biology whereas the label in the virtual is decided by choice. One chooses to be labeled as that gender, and that is why they are labeled as such. We assign other assumptions to the label, and after the biological elements are removed, those other assumptions are all that remains. With only assumptions and nothing to check them with, social taboos are easily broke, and virtual gender and age becomes an ethical question as well. What if there are two people who are intimately connecting, and one is actually an old man, and another is a young child? There is nothing barring a young child from creating an account and logging on to a teenage/adult website. Also, virtual gender brings up the question of homosexuality. Homosexuality is a strong taboo in most cultures, but MUDs allow users to choose their gender to interact with the gender of their choosing by exploiting assumptions. In these cases, the situation of changing gender can bring moral and ethical problems. 

The essays within Turkle discuss the interactions between humans and technology, specifically technology that "connects" with the human user. However the current age of technology is not able to give a true, honest connection to a human and will most likely never be able to as a computer runs off of instructions written by a user. One could argue that when artificial intelligence is sufficiently advanced that the connection will be true, however this cannot be assumed to be true as a computer will always be running from instructions and will may never "think" completely for itself. Algorithms will be law. A counter argument however for technology to be able to award emotional satisfaction could be like the tale of Pinocchio, where "he was first a [not alive] puppet, then a real puppet, and lastly a real, [alive] boy."

Addressing the second question involves deciding what research has shown to be of primary concern to both men and women in relationships.  Based on research involving relationships, the communication found in virtual romance would be more troubling to women valuing communication over physical aspects in a relationship.  They are predisposed to feel threatened by their spouses intimate communication with someone else and are found to be more forgiving in a physical affair.  On the other hand, research has suggested men are more concerned with the physical aspect in their relationships so they may not feel as threatened if there wife were to have an online relationship involving only communication.  

It seems that the “truer” perspective regarding interaction with a robot is a positive social connection, not an act of “speaking to chimeras.” As technology advances, technology's ability to interact with humans increases exponentially. Turkle points out herself that her earliest realization of the power of robots to make social connections was when she encountered a robot that turned in the direction of aural stimuli. Technology has evolved to the point where there are commercial robots toys that can interact with you based on even more varied stimulus. The robots being developed in academia are far more advanced. That being said, while at one time, this dichotomy between meaningless communication and social connection was equally arguable, it seems that communication with a robot is now in no way frivolous.

A robot could easily record every interaction it has with a person, if the robot's programmer wanted it to. If you're the only one who interacts with it, it could begin to build a mass of information based on what you relay to the robot. Given time, it is not unreasonable that an algorithm for analyzing this base of information is developed and a robot can respond to you based on what it “knows” about you. This would make your social connection very strong in at least a one-sided way. Even today, if a robot can respond to something you say, even if it is only analyzing queries as it receives it is already making a, albeit small, social connection. Turkle provided chilling examples of what happened when a robot malfunctioned and how it affected a child. Many would consider the social relationship between the robot and the child to be very real; it was, at least so for the child. If something like this happened over a decade ago, it is unfathomable what could happen in the future.

The idea that robots could one day replace humans in social interaction creates many questions.  Turkle addresses these questions yet leaves them unanswered, pointing to the uncertainty that technology with social capabilities will have on society.  Some of Turkle's questions ask who will have access to such robots and whether or not a new class of people will emerge when these robots begin interacting.  Will these robots first be used as childhood companions? And if so, will these children develop the social skills necessary in a social situation when all they are familiar with is the predictability of the robot's "personality".  Another interesting point that is addressed by Turkle concerns our primal instincts, that as a species, we naturally look for life.  When a robot appears to follow our movement, or look at us, we naturally assign the object as having life.  We can only repress this instinct through experience, through learning that computers are simply programs.  This idea is emphasized through Turkle's observation of children interacting with a human-like robot.  Because the child has not learned that a computer is not alive, he or she assumes that it is because of these natural tendencies.

By taking each reading to the extreme of its implications, the following scenario may be contemplated. Imagine a computer that unknowingly convinces people who are MUDding that it is real. Thousands of computers all interacting with each other and say just a few actual people. The users think that they are interacting with all these people and developing relationships, but its just a computer simulation. If the computer ever broke down, and the illusion was lifted that would cause intense emotional discomfort to the users. The idea of being someone that you always wanted and not being scared to try new things does wonders. Also, neither the virtual world nor a robot care whether you're a boy or a girl in real life or ugly or pretty.

The two readings show something that is very important to our society today. It is arguably true that it is a lot easier to be somebody else online than it is in person. The first article deals with just how those interactions can be either helpful or harmful. A lot of people view them as recreational, something that they do to blow off steam, or to learn new things. But, like the character in one of their examples, some people find it a "hollow victory"-- because while they do in fact gain something from it, they become more aware of what they don't have.

When people converse through technology, whether it is through a computer or phone text, they are even more real and genuine than in "real life." This is because one can be more honest and not worry so much about what other people would think of them because they don't have to see them face to face. This is why online dating sites are becoming so big in our society. However, a relationship with a non-human identity, although it can make one learn a great deal about one's self, can be dangerous because it might affect relationships with real humans in real life.

As a sociologist, Sherry Turkle brings up some interesting points about how society can affect the development of personalities. There is an interesting sort of irony that results from the idea that in normal or real society peoples personalities are somewhat suppressed and conformed, whereas in the cyber society which some deem "fake" people are allowed to explore what they might consider their true personality, or at the very least, experiment to find there own true selves. It is ironic in the fact that the "fake" cyber society allows a greater freedom and expression in oneself to whereas the "real" society can serve to suppress the personalities of people. Many of the examples that Turkle offered explained that they were able to "be themselves" in the cyber world without the restrictions and social boundaries of society.

Things in these worlds are full of experiences, but lack the successful tools of stimulation to actually feel any different from imagining the sensation. The internet indulging phenomenon poses an enigma: which aspect of what person is oriented in which society and how does one identify with only one society while living among many? The answer, though subjective, cannot be objective in today’s era. Time has to unfold to allow the future to progress. Turkle acknowledges that it is too difficult to precisely predict to what and how society will churn to, but her research is a certain indicator that the internet and technology is influencing a decentralized persona of many individuals -- they are becoming become nomads of virtual societies.

In "Who Am We" the concept of being alive and having a conscious and the difference between the two is brought up,how do you view the two and what feelings or ideas come to mind when the words "alive" and "conscious" are put together with the word "computer"?


  1. "Sherry Turkle", 'Wikipedia',

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