The Second Self: Sherry Turkle on the Human Spirit in a Computer Culture

“Technology catalyzes changes not only in what we do but in how we think. It changes people’s awareness of themselves, of one another, of their relationship with the world,” writes Sherry Turkle in her book The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit. “The new machine that stands behind the flashing digital signal, unlike the clock, the telescope, or the train, is a machine that ‘thinks.’ It challenges our notions not only of time and distance, but of mind.”

Because of my recent encounter with the incredible capabilities of AI, a science fiction turned everyday reality, I just couldn’t pass on the opportunity to read Sherry Turkle’s magnum opus about our intimate relationship with our gadgets, and how they alter the matrix of our life. In the chapter titled “The Human Spirit in a Computer Culture,” Turkle notes that beyond our understanding of a computer as an analytical engine, lies a deeper level of its second nature as an evocative object, an object that fascinates, disturbs equanimity, and precipitates thought. Sherry Turkle writes:

Ours has been called a culture of narcissism. The label is apt but can be misleading. It reads colloquially as selfishness and self-absorption. But these images do not capture the anxiety behind our search for mirrors. We are insecure in our understanding of ourselves, and this insecurity breeds a new preoccupation with the question of who we are. We search for ways to see ourselves. The computer is a new mirror, the first psychological machine. Beyond its nature as an analytical engine lies its second nature as an evocative object.

Narcissus by Caravaggio.

Stepping back and realizing that nowadays it’s practically impossible to go anywhere without a “mini-computer” called smartphone, one can’t help but wonder how dependent we’ve become on our devices, how much of our “self” we see in them. But computers are more than just screens onto which we project our personality. They have become a part of how a new generation is growing up. For adults and children who play computer games, who use the computer to manipulate words, information, and visual images, computers enter into the development of personality, identity, and even sexuality. Sherry Turkle writes:

Terrifed of being alone, yet afraid of intimacy, we experience widespread feelings of emptiness, of disconnection, of the unreality of self. And here the computer, a companion without emotional demands, offers a compromise. You can be a loner, but never alone. You can interact, but need never feel vulnerable to another person.

Not to Be Reproduced by Rene Magritte.

Experts have long argued, Turkle notes, whether computers will evolve into true “artificial intelligences,” themselves capable of self-sufficient, humanlike thought. But regardless of where the technology evolution might lead us in the future, in this present moment, computers already affect how we think and the way we construct the concepts of animate and inanimate, conscious and not conscious. Sherry Turkle writes:

Because they stand on the line between mind and not-mind, between life and not-life, computers excite reflection about the nature of mind and the nature of life. They provoke us to think about who we are. They challenge our ideas about what it is to be human, to think and feel. They present us with more than a challenge. They present us with an affront, because they hold up a new mirror in which mind is reflected as machine.

The False Mirror by Rene Magritte.

Indeed, as soon as we consider the very probable, almost palpable reality of true artificial intelligence, we face questions about what makes us “us.” Is there something in the depth of our being that AI can’t emulate, no matter how sophisticated it might be? Can intelligence without a living body ever really understand what it is to be human? Sherry Turkle writes:

No matter what a computer can do, human thought is something else. … We are born, we are nurtured by parents, we grow, we develop sexually, we become parents in our turn, we die. This cycle is what gives meaning to our lives. It brings us the knowledge that comes from understanding loss — from knowing that those we love will die and so will we. A being that is not born of a mother, that does not feel the vulnerability of childhood, a being that does not know sexuality or anticipate death, this being is alien. We may be machines, but it is our mortality that impels us to search for transcendence — in religion, history, art, the relationships in which we hope to live on.

The Second Self is a sobering read for our computer-addicted generation.

Woman looking at the laptop screen with text overlay: Sherry Turkle on the Human Spirit in a Computer Culture.

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