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Anthropology of Cyberspace

by Robert M. Young

Review of Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995. $25.00; London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1996. 18.99. Pp. 347

It is refreshing to read a book about computers and the internet in which Bill Gates has only one entry in the index, and Steve Jobs has none. This isn’t a yet-again tale of the triumph of the nerds. Sherry Turkle is an academic at MIT, a psychoanalytically-informed psychologist and a sociologist of science and technology. These qualifications help make her learned, but they don’t account for Life on the Screen being fascinating, well-written and troubling. It is better to think of her as she was described in a recent New Scientist feature (27 April) as an anthropologist of cyberspace. Her question is: ’Who are we and who are likely to become as computers play an increasingly important part in our lives?’ Although I disagree fundamentally with her final destination, I think it’s the best book yet on what computers and the net mean for our lives and our culture.

There has been a big change in the question since she wrote an important book about computers a decade ago. We were then coming to see the computer as The Second Self (her title). Now the relationship is more intimate and becoming even more so. One way of putting the possible end point of the trajectory is that it will be part and parcel of the self or - as she suggests - selves.

Her topic is as fundamental is it gets: the nature of identity in a culture of simulation, the lived meaning of a culture of simulation, the nature of the real in a culture of simulation (pp. 235, 267-8). All are sorely in doubt.

Most of the book is not about the internet at all. It explores recent developments in esoteric fields such as artificial intelligence, computer simulation of life and the ways of thinking about life and the machines which are involved in these fields of research. She tells a good story about each of these issues, including the debate between mechanical and emergentist forms of explanation, but her reviews of these developments are in the foothills of her approach to her main goal.

What she really wants to know is whether or not computers and the elaborate games people play on the internet can serve as laboratories for postmodernism, the currently fashionable theory which says that all coherence is gone in culture, knowledge, philosophy and personal identity. She says that ‘Computers embody postmodern theory and bring it down to earth’ (p. 18), that ’they are moving us from a modernist culture of calculation to a postmodernist culture of simulation’ (p.20) The computer ’is the symbol and tool of postmodern politics’ (p.243). ‘The internet has become a significant social laboratory for experimenting with the constructions and reconstructions of self that characterise postmodern life. In its virtual reality we self-fashion and self-create. What kinds of personae do we make? What relation do these have with what we have traditionally thought of as the "whole" person? (p.180)

The heart of her argument lies at the pinnacle of her explorations of the boundaries between living and non-living, person and machine: the interrelations between the machine and the self. She tells some gripping, funny and touching tales about virtual games called MUDs and MOOs. A MUD is a Multi-User Dimension, a cyberspace version of Dungeons and Dragons, and a MOO is a MUD Object Oriented, a text-based virtual reality site that allows people to connect to the same place at the same time. They are completely unlike conventional internet relay chat rooms (IRCs) in that they allow the manipulation of and interaction with cyber-objects in addition to just chatting with other people. They are virtual worlds, and more and more of us are disappearing into them: castles, seduction parlours, battlefields, Nintendos for kids cleverly disguised as grown-ups.

In MUDS and MOOs people can be whomsoever they like. They change their genders, their degree of assertiveness, their sexual predilections at will. Anything goes - from flirtation to cross-dressing to virtual rape and weird fetishisms. She ponders this phenomenon at length and gives some fascinating case studies, one of a young man who was, in RL (the net abbreviation for Real Life) ill and unable to exercise much. In the MUD he became a dashing young man, called Achilles, wooed and won a lovely lady, married her on the net ,and other members of the MUD game had a wedding party in Germany, while the virtual husband was languishing in America. The result was not, however, an increase in confidence. He felt devastated by the gap between his game self and his real self.

Another of her examples is a person who did gain confidence from roles he played on the net. He treated it as a transitional space, one where he could play and develop at the same time by taking on some major responsibilities in administering the MUD. She tells other stories of constructive use of experimentation with identifies during MUDs. The one which struck me most forcibly was a woman who had lost a leg in an accident. In her MUD game, she ’played’ a woman who had lost a leg, i.e., on the computer. What she learned from doing this enabled her to gain self-awareness and self-confidence and to move on to meeting people, including potential partners, off screen or, as true internet addicts say only half-self-mockingly, ‘on RL’, as if real life was just another net channel (p. 186)

The idea of a unified self is at the heart of our concepts of self and responsibility. It’s what the novel and the judicial system are about, to name but two. It is under all sorts of threats in the current world of changing careers, no jobs, few long relationships, threats of plagues, pollution and low sperm counts and all the things which make us nostalgic about earlier times. An alternative to asserting dogmatically that there is unity or reaching in a fundamentalist way for a belief system - whether religious or opportunistic or wonky - is to embrace the idea of a fragmented self (p. 258), accept that there is nothing beyond simulation and surface and go for what a guru of postmodernism, Frederic Jameson, has called ‘depthlessness’ and ‘the waning of affect’.

I think this is a counsel of despair and the question about computer games and all the wonderful things your PC and my Mac can do for you and me is whether we are being taken toward better relationships and values both on and off screen or whether we are being seduced into a space which is evasive, escapist and infantile. Turkle says practically nothing about the huge domain of pornography, about email forums and bulletin boards, about the use of the net for business, militias and knowledge. These are not her chosen topics. But identity is, and I think that in her zeal to show us the fascination and the ‘fit’ between the net and postmodernism, she has not been conscientious enough about the moral and political issues the net raises. I think they are important and scary and need to be discussed at length and by people who have been there.

I’m on the net much of the time, but I haven’t yet reached the desperation she calls ’head-banging’, where the only way out of obsessive net addiction is to set up for a new password and then bang your forehead on the keyboard several times, thus generating a random password which is irrecoverable. Bye-bye Dungeon; bye-bye Dragon, hello RL.


Internet email forum posting from Bob Young, 4 May 1996

I have recently read and reviewed (for the British edition of _Wired_) Sherry Turkle’s new book, _Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet_ (N.Y.: Simon & Schuster, 1995; London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1996), in which she reviews recent developments in artificial intelligence, computer psychotherapy programs and other fascinating topics. More importantly from our perspective, she writes from a psychoanalytic point of view about the concept of identity as affected by computers, especially internet games (called MUDs - for Multi-User Dimensions and MOOs - for MUD, Object Oriented), in which people are able to adopt virtual identities in a cyberspace version of Dungeons and Dragons. For example, they may change genders, cross-dress, adopt sexual mores contrary to their RL (Real Life) norms.

The first chapter and the last third of the book are devoted to the question of identity in what she calls ’a culture of simulation’. She quite explicitly connects her reflections to the debate about postmodernism, which is psychoanalytically interesting, because it challenges the idea of a unitary ego or - more loosely - the notion of a coherent self. In my opinion, this is where she gets carried away and loses contact with one of the axioms of object relations: that there are damaged objets and part-objects but these are always based on the unity of an underlying process. Putting it another way, on the continuum between role-playing and multiple personality disorder, we can find way-stations of various kinds and even one called (Winnicottian) false self, but there is no such thing as a person without a fundamental unconscious process in which object relations are centred and undergoing a continuous process, if often of deeply disturbed vicissitudes.

There is a rhetoric about, largely associated with postmodernism and arguments that sexual orientations and gender identities are chosen or constructed. I think it is facile, and I think Turkle - in spite of all the reasons one should admire her research and ideas - falls for it. Here is a passage from a research paper on ’Constructions and Reconstructions of the Self in Virtual Reality’ (the title of which makes my point):

’There is a lot of excitement about virtual reality. In both the popular and academic press there is enthusiasm and high expectation for a future in which we don gloves and masks and bodysuits and explore virtual space and sensuality. However, from a point of view centered on the evolution of our sense of self and self-definition there is reason to feel great excitement about where we are in the present. In the text-based virtual realities that exist today, people are exploring, constructing, and reconstructing their identities. They are doing this in an environment infused with a postmodern ethos of the value of multiple identities and of playing out aspects of the self and with a constructionist ethos of "Build something, be someone." And they are creating communities that have become privileged contexts for thinking about social, cultural, and ethical dilemmas of living in constructed lives that we share with extensions of ourselves we have embodied in program.

‘Watch for a nascent culture of virtual reality that is paradoxically a culture of the concrete, placing new saliency on the notion that we construct gender and that we become what we play, argue about, and build.’

I think this is about surface phenomena, that the concept of identity is central to the psychoanalytic perspective and that she has fallen for a trendy dimension of the postmodern celebration of surfaces, something which is offered as liberating but is fundamentally cynical and inimical to the maintenance of a moral order and a concept of person which is necessary for there to be a hope for humankind. There is a voluntarism in the rhetoric of some tendencies of the women’s movement and among some advocates of dissident sexualities which I find psychoanalytically naive. (Please do not mis-read me: I am not impugning anyone’s civil rights. Nor am I being a Canute about nature or biologism. Much of my work in the history and philosophy of science is in the camp of social constructivism, and I am a devoted admirer of Donna Haraway and her work.) I don’t want to make this posting even longer, so I’ll just say that I have argued in opposition to postmodern concepts of identity from the point of view of object relations theory in essays at my home page which are listed in an essay (also there) called ‘Primitive Processes on the Internet‘. Here are some references to her work, including interviews where she elaborates what she says in the book. By the way, in spite of my criticisms, I think it’s an excellent book and immensely thought-provoking.

’High Priestess of Cyberspace’ by Nathan Cobb _Boston Globe_ 11 Nov. 1995


’Sex, Lies and Avatars’

A Profile by Pamela McCorduck

_Wired_ April 1996, pp. 106-10, 158-64.

‘Life at the Interface’

Interview by Liz Else

Howard Reingold interview with Sherry Turkle: http://www.well.com/user/hlr/texts/mindtomind/turkle.html

Sherry Turkle’s Home page:


’Constructions and Reconstructions of the Self in Virtual Reality’


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Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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