Contemporary science has done a great disservice to Sigmund Freud, suggests Sherry Turkle, who believes the psychoanalytic tradition can teach us much about the often concealed connections between physical objects and our thoughts and feelings. On the occasion of the publication of her latest book, The Inner History of Devices -- the third in a trilogy -- Turkle speaks of the importance of technology as a subjective tool, as a window into the soul.
When she first arrived at MIT, Turkle relates, colleagues viewed devices like their computers as simply instruments for accomplishing work. Turkle set out on her life’s work to demonstrate that technology serves a much greater purpose in our lives. People turn their devices “into beings, which they animate, anthropomorphize.” Her research and writing involves the ways people invest themselves in physical objects, and how those objects “inflect inner life, relationships, carry ideas, sensibilities and memory.”
Turkle’s latest work, as she describes it, brings together the artful listening of a memoirist, the interpretive skills of a clinician, and the participant observational skills of an ethnographer. Together, these enable her to dig deep into such questions as how cellphones can change people’s sensibilities, what is intimacy without privacy (e.g., texting and Second Life); and how people are starting to add robots as companions to their lives. There is no doubt that technology is “changing our hearts and minds,” and that people increasingly attach “to the inanimate without prejudice.” Whether online or with robotic creatures, “we are lost in cyber intimacies and solitudes, and we often don’t know if we’ve been alone, together, close or distant.”
Turkle reads snippets from her three books, which, as an ensemble, tell the story of the intellectual and emotional links between objects and ourselves. Technology, she says, serves as a Rorschach for personal, political and social concerns, carrying ideas, expressing individual differences in style. It also “acts as a foil we use to figure out what it means to be human,” crystallizing memory and identity and provoking new thought. For instance, kids have at least seven radically different styles of using Legos, she says, which allow us “to see who the child is.” “For too long we have stressed … that technology has affordances that constrain its use. I take it from the other side: how do different personalities, cognitive styles and desires take a technology and turn it into what that person wants to know and express.”