Book Review
Life on the Screen
by Sherry Turkle

In Life on the Screen, Sherry Turkle (The Second Self, Psychoanalytic Politics) examines the evolution of the computer aesthetic, artificial intelligence, and our perceptions and interactions with computer technology.

In the first section of her book, Turkle examines the evolution of personal computer aesthetics and application. She begins by demonstrating how we have moved from perceiving the computer as an “object to work with” to an “object to think with.” Using the terms “transparent” and “opaque” to describe the difference between DOS-based systems and the Macintosh interface, Turkle details how users now interact with the computer on a much different level than earlier people. We have moved from rigidity in computing to fluidity; from calculation to simulation -- as evidenced by the triumph of the desktop metaphor. This fluidity and non-linearity of the current computer aesthetic directly parallels the continuing societal transition from modernism (science, reason, and order) to postmodernism (experience, ambiguity, and chaos).

A central tenet of postmodernism is the willingness to accept ambiguity. Turkle details in the middle chapters of Life on the Screen how ambiguity abounds in the way our culture has defined and related to computers from the mechanical to the psychological. She traces the computer’s history from that of a calculation tool to one of artificial intelligence (AI) and a creator of artificial life (A-Life), then outlines the gradual acceptance of the computer as an interface mediating between humanity and its self-conscious.  What follows is a trip into the very current study of A-Life. She once again provides a history of the field, while this time getting in digs to her fellow MIT academic, Marvin Minsky, whose information processing approach to AI is counter to Turkle’s emergent theories.

Turkle then postulates that we are becoming aware of our multiplicity. In the third section of her book, she delves into the psyche to examine how simulation and the Internet are redefining, “identity as multiplicity.”  The Internet, according to Turkle, is providing individuals with an opportunity and an outlet to experiment with identity, gender roles, and parallel lives. Through the use of numerous case studies, she suggests that perhaps reality is not so definable anymore. What defines a person’s “real” life and personality if he presents himself one way in the physical world, yet creates a personae online which is vastly different than his offline existence? Turkle suggests that a “fragmentation of the self” is helping to redefine reality and personal identity.
Overall, Life on the Screen  succeeds in raising some intriguing questions about how we are redefining personal identity in our postmodern world. In addition, it is an excellent introduction to the history and many of the concepts important to the fields of computing, AI, A-Life, and personal identity in this electronic age. This is a book that is geared for the reader who is not afraid to be either philosophically or intellectually challenged.

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