Reconceptualizing Individuality.
Individuals and Communities, part one.

     MIT professor Sherry Turkle sees the way we use computers for communication as providing new ways of conceptualizing individuality in terms of a kind of inner multiplicity, or multiple subjectivity in which the individual is seen as an amalgamation of distinct "selves,"  rather than an easily identifiable whole.

     First, as background, she sees computer technologies as providing us with new--as she calls them-- "objects-to think-with." An "object-to-think-with" is a framework for our perception of ourselves and others. 

     Turkle gives the example of the popularization of Freudian psychology. In Computational Technologies and Images of the Self, Turkle writes, "the popular appropriation of Freudian ideas had little to do with scientific demonstrations of their validity. Freudian ideas passed into the popular culture because they offered robust objects-to think-with." In other words, Freud’s ideas gave us ways of looking at ourselves that were at first intuitively satisfying, and later came to define--for many--a large part of social reality. Freud’s ideas have greatly shaped our world, our social interactions, as well as our conception of "self," or "who we are."

     Freud contributed to our vision of our "selves" mainly by demonstrating that we are all wracked with terrible insecurities and an unceasing, impossible search for perfection. He gave us the id, superego, etc.--all terms with which we are familiar and mostly comfortable with. But, whatever new ideas Freud did give us, they did little to change our notions of social interaction based on the interplay of isolated individuals, each endowed with a unique, unified personality. Subsequent psychologists did little to change this in the decades following Freud. These psychologists provided us with "temperament sorters," and definitions of singular "personality types," etc. 

     Turkle’s theory centers on recognizing the "objects-to-think-with" provided by 1.) computer artificial intelligence research; 2.) the study of actual computer use; and 3.) the incorporation of the work of behavioral psychologists from the 1960s and 70s known as "connectionists." She finds in this synthesis the basis for transforming our metaphors for the mind from isolated parts acting upon one another, to connected wholes. This new metaphor for the mind may then be extended to the way in which we view our individual identities, or our "selves." 

     Turkle sees the modern computer interface and the reliance upon the "window" metaphor as fitting perfectly within the framework of this new way of viewing ourselves. When we work with computers in a windows operating environment, we employ a technique Turkle refers to as "bricolage," or tinkering. Often we have no idea how the computer works or what it is capable of doing. The windows operating environment puts us in a position where we explore and uncover different possibilities, many of which exist simultaneously. In the following quotes from Computational Technologies…, Turkle explains how she sees this working:

     "…windows have become a potent metaphor for thinking about the self as a multiple, distributed system. According to the metaphor, the self is no longer simply playing different roles in different settings, something that people experience when, for example, a woman wakes up as a lover, makes breakfast as a mother, and drives to work as a lawyer. The life practice of windows is of a distributed self that exists in many worlds and plays many roles at the same time." 

     "If, traditionally, identity implied oneness, life on today’s computer screen implies multiplicity and heterogeneity." 

     "What I am saying is that the many manifestations of multiplicity in our culture, including the adoption of multiple on-line personae, are contributing to a general reconsideration of traditional, unitary notions of identity. On-line experiences with ‘parallel lives’ are part of the cultural context that supports new theorizations about multiple selves."

To read more on multiplicity and identity, click here for

Donna LeCourt.

     Turkle gives us unique insights on the interrelation between technology and our images of ourselves, which consistently allow for new freedoms in thinking about our individual identities. The implications for feminist thought, and ideas of multiple selves, are striking.
     In another piece titled Ghosts in the Machine, Turkle sees the new "virtual worlds" of electronic communication giving us new latitudes in theorizing reality itself. Turkle writes:

    "In a virtual world, where both humans and computer programs adopt personas, where intelligence and personality are reduced to words on a screen, what does it mean to say that one character is more real than another?" 

     Turkle here begins to raise some questions about control and authority over works published or transmitted on the Internet. She recounts the experience of being impersonated (or perhaps mocked) on the web with a "Dr. Sherry" character created by an unknown user posting to a discussion group. Turkle comments, "Sherry was a derivative of me, but she was not mine. I experienced her as a little piece of my history spinning out of control." So, we begin to see that there is an obvious potential to alter "realities" by impersonation and misrepresentation on the web. 

     In this case, "Dr. Sherry," Turkle’s alter ego, was "administer[ing] questionnaires and conduct[ing] interviews about the psychology of MUDs." This may explain Turkle’s lax response. What if "Dr. Sherry" had been a dominatrix, or a racist? Turkle sees some aspects of her persona "spinning out of control," but the situation actually was rather controlled, at least in this instance. Although Turkle champions multiplicity and the notion of a decentered, polyvocal self, I would assume she would like to have some personal control over the presentation of that self. The privacy issues, as well as the possibilities for fraud and misrepresentation, being as numerous as they are on the web, certainly problematize Turkle’s enthusiasm for the medium. There is a difference between expressing polyvolcality, and having someone else do it for you. Notions of the self and intertextuality can become confused, almost to the point where we can’t tell the difference (or maybe, considering Turkle’s blithe reaction to an apparent violation of her authority, we don’t care if there is a difference) between original thought and the ongoing dialogue represented by the creation of "texts." 

     Mike Davis in Fragmented by Technologies: A Community in Cyberspace, writes the following:

     "Despite some attempts to address legal and intellectual ownership of the contents of cyberspace, this continues to be complex, if not increasingly so, as it begins to challenge notions of originality. As Spender (1995), quoting Dorner writes: "As any self-respecting deconstructionist will tell you, any text is the product of other texts."

     If any "self" is the product of other "selves," then exactly who are we? Turkle’s work raises age-old, problematic philosophical questions that she makes no attempt to answer.


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