The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit. Sherry Turkle. Simon & Schuster.

The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit Book Cover The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit
Sherry Turkle
Simon & Schuster
June 1984

In this important and original book, the study of a culture in the making, the author writes: “Most considerations of the computer concentrate on the ‘instrumental computer,’ on what work the computer will do. But I am interested in… the ‘subjective computer.’  This is the machine as it enters social life and psychological development, the computer as it affects the way we think, especially the way we think about ourselves. I believe that what fascinates me is the unstated question that lies behind much of our preoccupation with the computer’s capabilities. The question is not what will the computer be like in the future, but what will we be like? What kind of people are we becoming?”

Possibly the greatest change brought about by this machine that can appear – almost – to think is that it has provoked those of us who live with it to reconsider what it means to think, to feel, and to be human. This is the fascinating discovery presented by MIT sociologist and psychologist Sherry Turkle after a six-year field trip through all levels of the rapidly emerging new “computer culture.” Her descriptions of what is happening – from children with computer toys and computers in the classroom, video game players, home computer amateurs, virtuoso “hackers,”  professional programmers, to artificial-intelligence researchers – presage the consciousness of the the new world in which we, and certainly our children, will live.

Turkle looks at the new computer culture as a humanist. She examines the holding power of the computer and watches and talks to all sorts of people involved with it, not just the experts. Doing so, she achieves a kind of breakthrough, uncovering with empirical evidence the intensity of the relationship between individuals and the machine. The computer becomes more than a tool. It becomes a psychological machine not because it might be said to have a psychology, but because it provokes us to think about our own. It becomes in some way a Second Self.

Working with computers, the author concludes, forces people to reflect on whether they themselves are “programmed” or free. it elicits, in some, a new wave of mechanical determinism, but in others it evokes a powerful romanticism and a renewed sense of self-determination.

The coming of the age of computers is our signal for an urgent philosophic inquiry. Turkle points out a compelling parallel with another such time.  “If behind popular fascination with Freudian theory there is a nervous, often guilty, preoccupation with the self as sexual, behind increasing interest in computational interpretations of the mind is an equally nervous preoccupation with the idea of self as a machine.”

The Second Self illuminates as it informs and entertains. It is a book of depth as well as scope.

Sherry Turkle holds a joint doctorate in sociology and psychology from Harvard University. She is an associate professor in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology and Society. The Second Self is the product of six years of study and fieldwork.