Turkle on Life on the Screen

Turkle, Sherry. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. Simon and Schuster (Sept. 1997): NY, NY. http://www.amazon.com/Life-Screen-Identity-Age-Internet/dp/0684833484

Are you a Mac or a PC?


Besides the brilliantly clever advertising campaign Apple launched asking this very question (with the costs passed directly to the customer), this question has a complicated history that could make you rethink your answer. As Turkle rightfully points out, in the 1970’s the first personal computers engaged users with a more mechanical, technical inclination than the GUI, or simulation-driven models ubiquitous in today’s market (hacker vs hobbyist).  The hardware was designed so that these computers could be dismantled, manipulated, and rebuilt by the user. Furthermore, early IBM’s and very early Apple models necessitated the user write basic code – or commands – in order to execute functions. Even word processing programs in DOS (MS, PC, DR) required the user frame their text in code.Throughout the evolution of these early models, this “transparency” and need to “see inside” remained. Turkle claims these computers “presented themselves as open, ‘transparent,’ potentially reducible to their underlying mechanisms. These were systems that invited users to imagine that they could understand its “gears” as they turned, even if very few people ever tried to reach that level of understanding.” However, with the introduction of the Apple II and its contemporaries, processing applications negated the need to understand how the hardware and software communicate to execute functions. As the efficiency of applications advanced, with increased ease of use, the hardware became more invisible, and harder to access. Even the term “users” evolved with the changing landscape of simulation-based interfaces – a “user” Turkle argues, becomes someone who is hands-on, but “not interested in the technology except as it enables an application.” By the mid-1980’s Apple users could no longer open the machine at all (only authorized personnel had access to the tool needed to break into the hardware).

I am sure you can see where I, via Turkle, am going with this. Apple=submission. Whereas the technology itself encouraged us to build, manipulate, understand, and communicate, it now encourages us to consume, regurgitate, and conform. Turkle puts it beautifully, “[c]hanges in both technology and culture encourage certain styles of technology and of representing technology to dominate others.”  We are easily dominated in this world of consumer technology. My only hope is that the resurgence of the open-access movement will help us advocate for access to the code, processes, and gears that allow us to understand how these machines work, and how to create new, custom machines that stimulate creativity rather than conformity. Take for example the Berlin Declaration: http://oa.mpg.de/lang/en-uk/berlin-prozess/berliner-erklarung/

I think it is the need to make things, to be creative, to communicate, that drives the desire to integrate technology into our lives, and classrooms. It is the same reason we write. As Turkle expresses, “We paint, we work, we keep journals, we start companies, we build things that express the diversity of our personal and intellectual sensibilities. Yet the computer offers us new opportunities as a medium that embodies our ideas and expresses our diversity.” However, it is the desire to know how things work, to understand processes, and to understand the effects of our creations that lead us to be more than just users – we want to “see inside.” This is the same reason I study writing. And technology.

A few more notes that should lead to further discussion. The first is discipline specific, and the second is a general provocation:

Important questions are raised for those of us who write, and teach writing, based on Turkle’s causal observations that:
1) What she once thought of cutting and pasting as editing, now with the ease of computer software she is just part of writing.
2) When she wants to write she will wait until there is a computer around- she feels she must wait until she has a computer in order to write.
So my question is, how does composing in digital mediums, especially through applications such as word processors, change the way we write? For better or worse?

Turkle’s book is, as she claims, “about the intense relationships people have with computers and how these relationships are changing the way we think and feel” and her thesis can be summarized in this sentence, “Computers don’t just do things for us, they do things to us, including to our ways of thinking about ourselves and other people.” How has ubicom (ubiquitous computing) changed the way we think? If we no longer desire to know how things work, and we are content to let computers do things for us and to us, what will be the fate of our civilization?

For now, I sign-off as a proud (code-writing, program building, open-access advocating) PC.

Hayles on Cybernetics

Hayles, N. Katherine. “Cybernetics.” Mitchell, W. J. T. and Mark B. N. Hansen, eds. Critical Terms for Media Studies. Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 2010.  146-156.

In this article Hayles suggests that media can be understood through materiality, technology, semiotics, and social contexts. The article examines these aspects of media through systems theory – exploring how information is produced, processed, and consumed in a world of new media. Hayles cites Gordon Pask’s definition of cybernetics “as the field concerned with information flows in all media, including biological, mechanical, and even cosmological systems.” Hayles further develops this definition through the use of Claude Shannon and Norbert Wiener’s definition of information “as a function of message probabilities…detached from context and consequently from meaning.” Therefore information is disembodied. Hans Moravec goes as far as suggesting it will be possible to upload the human brain to a computer, allowing humans to move into a “postbiological era” which clearly influences much of Hayles’ work (such as this book).

Hayles breaks the history of cybernetics into a three-part progression covering 1943 to 1996. 1) 1943-1960: first order cybernetics, focusing on the separation between the organism/mechanism and their environment. 2) 1960-1985 reflexivity and autopoietic theory, introducing the observer as part of the system. 3)1985-1996 virtuality (coined by Hayles in 1996), Hayles claims that “human and animal bodies are media because they have the capacity to store, transmit and process information.” This moves into the current fourth phase with the ability of modern technology to cause virtual environments, or cyberspace, to become integrated into the “real world.”  Examples of this include the GUI (the graphic user interface, often created to mimic physical work spaces), augmented reality, and semantic web possibilities. These manifestations of virtuality are termed “mixed reality.” The third and fourth phases are imagined as a third-order cybernetics concentrated on the social and linguistic environments occupied by the observer (of these I am particularly interested in the construction of social networks).

Another interesting shift occurs through Edward Fredkin’s claim that “the meaning of information is given by the processes that interpret it,” including mechanical nonhuman processes. Hayles interprets this as significant because it “enables us to see these sub-cognitive and non-cognitive processes not just as contributing to a conscious thought but as themselves acts of interpretation and meaning.” This theory has radical repercussions within both literary and writing studies because this shift would refocus attention of the process of interpreting rather than on the interpretation as a product.