Identity   /   Fall 1999   /    Interview

Interview with Sherry Turkle

Joseph E. Davis and Sherry Turkle

3Com Ergo Audrey, a 2000 “internet appliance,” in original Linen and custom-painted black. Photo by Rob Hudson.

Sherry Turkle is Professor of Sociology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a licensed clinical psychologist. She has written numerous articles on psychoanalysis and culture and on the subjective side of people’s relationships with technology, especially computers. Her books include Psychoanalytic Politics: Jacques Lacan and Freud’s French Revolution, The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit, and Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. Professor Turkle’s work has been widely discussed in both the academic and popular press. This interview was conducted in February 1999 by Joseph E. Davis.

We typically think of the mind or the self in unitary images. Even those psychodynamic theories that stress that there are unconscious as well as conscious aspects to the mind tend to describe the final, functioning “self ” “as if ” it were one. You have written about cyberspace as a place that calls into question images of a unitary self. Could you elaborate on this?

I have found that the experience of cyberspace, the experience of playing selves in various cyber-contexts, perhaps even at the same time, on multiple windows, is a concretization of a way of thinking about the self, not as unitary but as multiple. In this view, we move among various self states, various aspects of self. It suggests that our sense of one self is a kind of illusion…one that we are able to sustain because we have learned to move fluidly among the self states. In this view of selfhood, psychological health is not tantamount to achieving a state of oneness, but the ability to make fluid transitions among the many and to reflect on our-selves by standing in a space between states. Life on the screen provides a new context for this psychological practice. One has a new context for negotiating the transitions. One has a new space for commenting on the complexities and contradictions among the selves. So, experiences in cyberspace encourage us to discover and find a new way to talk about the self as multiple and about psychological health not in terms of constructing a one but of negotiating the many.

But this fluidity and ease with expressing multiple aspects of self must be contrasted with the experience of multiple personality disorder. People who suffer from multiple personality disorder have fragmented selves where different pieces are walled off from the others—often in the service of protecting parts of the self from secret knowledge, traumatic memories. People who suffer in this way can have the experience of opening their closet in the morning and not knowing who bought some of the suits inside it. In the case of people assuming online personas, people are aware of the lives they have created on the screen. They are exploring different aspects of themselves and are aware of the way they move among them. They are having an experience that encourages them to challenge traditional ways of thinking about healthy selves as single and unitary. In this, the computer is taking a common cultural experience to a higher power.

We live an increasingly fragmented, multi-roled existence. A woman may wake up as a lover, have breakfast as a mother, and drive to work as a lawyer. A man might be a manager at the office and a nurturer at home. So even without computer networks, people are cycling through different roles and are challenged to think about their identities in terms of multiplicity. The Internet concretizes this experience of identity as multiplicity. It takes the fluidity of identity that is called for in everyday life and raises it to a higher power: People come to see themselves as being the sum of their distributed presence in all the windows they open on the screen. The technical metaphor of cycling through computer windows has become a metaphor for thinking about the relationship among aspects of the self.

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