Identity play

This is the second in my series of retrospective reviews on seminal  learning and technology books. I have scoured my personal book library in search of a dozen books that have influenced my own thinking, and share a synopsis of their contents with you. Today's book recommendation is: 

Sherry Turkle (1995) Life on Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Touchstone.

Life on Screen is a seminal book. It is now almost two decades old, and you may ask, how useful or relevant is a book on technology that was written in the last century? Although technology has moved on a pace - since the book was written we now have social media, mobile phones and touch screen tablet computers - many of Sherry Turkle's ideas still resonate with personal meaning. The reason for this is that she doesn't focus too much on transient effects such as what technology we use, she is more interested in pursuing the questions around human identity and how it can be influenced by technology. Sherry Turkle was, as Paul Judge has suggested, the Margaret Mead of cyberspace. Turkle was to all intents the first digital anthropologist, practicing participant observational research. Instead of sitting in mud huts as did Mead, Turkle immersed herself in the culture of the digitally mediated communication platforms of her day (in 1995 the predominant forms were MUDs - Multi User Domains, and MOOs - MUD Object Oriented). She lurked in the corners of the chat rooms and recorded the conversations she witnessed. In doing so, she created a rich tapestry of knowledge about personal lives, multiple contexts and the construction of public identities. We need to remember that in the mid-nineties, MUDs and MOOs were quite primitive in comparison to the media rich social networking tools of today, and relied mostly on textual communication. Hence, Turkle declares:

'On MUDs, one's body is represented by one's own textual description so the obese can be slender, the beautiful plain, the "nerdy" sophisticated. The anonymity of MUDs - one is known on a MUD only by the name of one's character or characters - gives people the chance to express multiple and often unexplored aspects of the self, to play with their identity and to try our new ones. MUDs make possible the creation of an identity so fluid and multiple that it strains the limits of the notion.' (p 12)

Turkle is perhaps one of the first authors to identify the fact that because human identity is fluid, manipulation of personae can be amplified and projected through the use of digital media. Today, even with the use of images, audio and video to supplement textual communication, people still have the capability to hide behind anonymity and also to manipulate their identity in many different ways. In some ways, she suggests, identity play can be therapeutic. More importantly, Turkle acknowledges that personal identity is often in the hands of individuals to make of what they will, a nod in the direction of the personalised spaces and digital presence construction that were to emerge a decade down the line. Turkle began to pose questions that were to gain a purchase on the rapid development and proliferation of computer mediated communication. She asked:

'Do our real-life selves learn lessons from our virtual personae?' (p 180) and documented how the early users of the Web struggled to come to terms with multiple contexts and manipulation of multiple identities with her ominous and prescient question '... are we watching a slow emergence of a new, more multiple style of thinking about the mind?' (p 180) In retrospect, Turkle was asking exactly the right questions, because evidence now exists that we do apply in real-life many of the lessons learnt on the Web, and we have as a post-industrial society come around to thinking about identity as multiple, and the individual as multi-tasking. We live in a world far richer in terms of social networking than Sherry Turkle did in the 1990s. And yet her studies into the use of these primitive versions of what we now call social media, revealed much of the truth about how we still engage today with each other online. She saw for example that we can easily deceived ourselves:

'... a virtual experience may be so compelling that we believe that within it we've achieved more than we have'. (p 238) This is clearly an experience we repeat time after time, as we spend endless hours immersed in chat, sharing and commenting, liking and favouriting, and ultimately engaging with our personal learning networks. How much of this could be achieved in real-life in less time, and more simply?

Turkle correctly identifies several facets of computers, each expressed as a metaphor, and each rings as true today as it did in 1995. She suggests that computers can be used 'as tool, as mirror, and as gateway to a world through the looking glass of the screen.' (p 267) Here, Turkle makes oblique reference to the symbolic interactionist work of Charles Cooley, who suggested that we see ourselves reflected in the 'looking glass' eyes of our interlocutors, and adjust our behaviour accordingly, simply to be accepted. It is probably true that fewer of us today tend to hide behind fake identities, and we are influenced by the responses, comments and retweets of our peer group. Perhaps that makes us more open and honest, but somehow it also reveals we are becoming increasingly naive.

Photo by Steve Wheeler

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Identity play by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


David Hopkins said…
Thanks Steve - another to add to my list of books to read.

All the best, David
drbexl said…
Looks really interesting. Presses buy on a second hand copy once again... I still have Alone Together to read too!
Steve McCarty said…
Thanks! However, in 1996 with the MOO object-oriented programming we could dig our own chat rooms, create adventures, or play Scrabble. Today there are just so many more users with much easier entry to Web publishing that the phenomena loom larger. Granted, using mostly words appealed mostly to the verbally oriented. The loss of anonymity was more a business decision of Google and FB than a change in people's views. My Japanese students are in various stages of concealment as they transition to FB. But as you say, identity and computer-mediated communication issues could already be tackled presciently in those days.
Anna Varna said…
I have read Alone Together and as you say for this book it resonated so much I got scared for a while. But Turkle is really a digital anthropologist, as objective researcher as possible and a great writer too!

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