The Second Self

Verkamp, Bernard J.

Program for selfhood THE SECOND SELF COMPUTERS AND THE HUMAN SPIRIT Sherry Turkle Simon and Schuster, $17.95, 362 pp. Bernard J. Verkamp IN Eugene Ionesco's play The Rhinoceros, the ordinary...

...Standing as they do on the line between mind and not-mind, between life and not-life, computers, she claims, have become to modern man what animals, or, in a more dramatic way, the Wild Child of Aveyron, were in an earlier age...
...What she reports, therefore, is primarily of sociological interest...
...Bernard J. Verkamp IN Eugene Ionesco's play The Rhinoceros, the ordinary citizen Be-renger finds himself in a town where the few people who have not already grown horns and thick skins are preparing for the inevitable extinction of humanity by busying themselves with the task of understanding how the mind of the rhinoceros works...
...Turkle tells, for example, how at her very first MIT faculty party she met a young student who responded to a heated conversation about artificial intelligence by declaring: "I don't see what the problem is I'm a machine, and I think.'' But MIT also had its Berenger...
...The place was crawling with AI (artificial intelligence) people, who had dedicated their lives to the task of understanding how the machine can think...
...Her concern, she says, is not with the truth of theories about mind, but with the way in which they capture the popular imagination...
...One MIT computer science major, for example, a devout Catholic, named Frank, is heard insisting that only a''soul'' can provide the' 'delicate programming" needed by "agents of the mind" to account for "emergent intelligence...
...In addition, by providing us with a mechanistic, computational model of the mind (as a "multiprocessing society of programs"), they threaten our sense of selfhood and its centrality to no less a degree than did the theories of Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud...
...Most of the people studied by Turkle, however, are less sophisticated...
...He talks excitedly about the day when AI will advance to the point of making a computer' 'that a soiil would Commonweal: 250 want to live in...
...It is rather of a Romantic sort...
...As she spent the next six years doing research for this book on how computational metaphors are used in self-reflection, her sympathies would obviously remain with this man...
...For some, the metamorphosis had in fact already occurred...
...Turkle says that on the morning of the very same day she had worked with a patient in psychotherapy who, for many months, had been using the image of "being a machine" to express his feeling of "depersonalization, emptiness, and despair...
...Still, anyone interested in the traditional philosophical discussion of the relation of mind and body, and the nature of selfhood, will also find much in the book that is very intriguing...
...Upon arriving at MIT as a newly appointed professor, Sherry Turkle apparently found herself in a similar situation...
...Just as Michael 19 April 1985: 249 Polanyi, Anna Freud, and others have found ways to reassert a self-centered view of the human over against the Copernican, Darwinian, and Freudian theories, so "even those who accept the idea that as humans they are computers find ways to think of themselves as something more as well...
...For Turkle is, by her own admission, a humanist, and her book can best be described as a documentary on the survival of the human spirit in the computer age...
...This leads to some repetition, but it also yields some fascinating results in terms of showing how people who accept the computational model of mind persist in finding ways to modify theory so as to leave room for a sense of selfhood...
...Describing oneself as a machine was for him, she notes, "an experience of pain...
...This is primarily what she intends to suggest when, as in the book's title, she refers to the computer as "the second self...
...Turkle brings them into focus by presenting them first from a psychological perspective as dominant themes in the chronology of individual development, and then from an anthropological perspective as dominant themes in the construction of different computer cultures...
...Taking her lead from the way other scholars like Claude Levi-Strauss and Seymore Papert have analyzed the relation between artifacts and thought, Turkle treats the computer as an ' 'evocative object...
...But for the people she had studied, "things are not that simple...
...The method is called ethnography, and consists largely in the presentation of "ideal types" that are derived from observing and interviewing people involved in the culture under study...
...Three modes of relating to the computer were detected in this way (metaphysics, mastery, and identity...
...Hers, however, is not the "minimal humanism," persisting only through man's awareness of his absurd plight, that Wylie Sypher has ascribed to the likes of Ionesco and Samuel Beckett...
...To track this struggle for self-knowledge and personal survival, Turkle uses the same style of inquiry that she employed in her earlier study (Psychoanalytic Politics) about how France had been swept by an "infatuation with Freud" in the late 1960s...
...What she claims to have discovered in her study of people's reaction to the new, high technology, is a "reassertion of feeling and of the ineffable...
...The author herself makes no pretense of being a philosopher...
...They are a camera oscura for the self, challenging us to think about who we are...
...Over four hundred people, about half of them children and adolescents ("five-year-olds playing with computer games and toys" and "sophomores in high school computer clubs"), and half of them adults ("college freshmen taking their first programming course, engineers in industrial settings, and electronic hobbyists who had recently switched from building model trains to building computers from kits"), were interviewed and observed in their interaction with the computer...
...What she had stumbled into was the new world of the computer that "most inflexible, desireless, rule-following of beasts," as Douglas Hofstadter called it in his 1978 book G'ddel, Escher, Bach...
...Turkle cites many examples of this, but the best is the case of a twelve-year-old programmer named David who tells her that "when there are computers who are just as smart as people," people will still be the ones "who will love each other, have families . . . and go to church...
...When confronted by the computer as a second self, they "turn to their feelings," and describe themselves as "emotional machines...
...The book may strike some as an exercise in "sentimental egoism...
...Turkle notes that in the face of this challenge, some people, like the reporters of the 1983 Newsweek cover story on the mind, succumb to the thought that we are all "chemistry and program...

Vol. 112 • April 1985 • No. 8


 
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