Review of "Life on the Screen", by Sherry Turkle

Sherry Turkle has a number of theses to put forth in her book "Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet". Most of these revolve around the idea that the Internet and on-line worlds are prime examples of postmodern thought. Not being schooled in philosophy or literature, I shall not address these general issues. Instead, I wish to concentrate on Turkle's observations regarding the computer becoming an extension of the self.

Throughout the book, Turkle uses the MUD (Multi-User Dungeon or Domain) as a generic term for on-line virtual reality realms. (I shall also do so here.) She does not focus on other forms of on-line interaction, such as email or newsgroups, as much as MUDs. Mostly, this is due to the fact that MUDs allow users to create more complete selves on-line, using words, actions, and physical descriptions within the game's world. Also, MUDs are social by definition, since interaction with other users in the MUD is an essential part of the MUD experience. From these interactions, societies form within the MUDs with their own rules and norms and taboos.

Within these societies, the characters people create are varied. Some people take on new personae, including different genders, that are vastly different from their real life persona. People of all ages use MUDs, often playing ages different than their own. Turkle's studies found that the roles people take on within MUDs are varied. Some people will develop personae that are similar to their real life persona. Alternately, some people develop personae that are the opposite of what they are or what they wish to be in real life. Many people have numerous personae on-line, between which they can slip easily, taking on each persona's traits as easily as switching masks in real life. Turkle addresses the creation and utilization of different personae as a sign of psychological dysfunction for the most part. She barely touches on the thought that many people who create alternate personae on-line do so to express themselves in a creative form, much in the same way an actor would on stage. MUDs and MUDding are games, whether they be role-playing games or simple goal-based games. (Thought MUDs are games, many users spend a great deal of time and effort working and playing within these virtual worlds. Some users take the worlds and their interactions with other characters more seriously than others, as we will see below.) Users have the ability to create anything and anyone on-line that their imagination can derive. There are no limits to the creative space on-line except those of the written word or electronic picture, movie, or sound file. If a user can dream it, they can be it, to paraphrase a lyric from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show".

As well as creating personae, users can develop entire worlds within the confines of the MUD, creating objects and places with which others in the MUD can interact. Most MUD players are creators as well as consumers within the game. This community-minded way of developing MUDs leads to community-minded rules and norms within MUDs. Turkle describes an example where a certain MUD had to deal with the rules of virtual rape. According to the rules of the game, there was nothing stopping someone or a group from "raping" a victim within the game. There were arguments that since the MUD is just a game, there is morally nothing wrong with it since no one was actually being physically assaulted. On the other side of the argument, the majority of the players in the MUD felt that virtual rape was not acceptable behavior in that it took away a player's rights and violated them personally even though it was only their avatar that was assaulted. The question of where the mind ends and the body begins on-line was addressed by the community. The debate was never settled, but such discourse helps develop the community and make it more real to those playing in it.

Politically speaking, a certain MUD had a heated debate over whether MUD administrators, or wizards, should be allowed to walk throughout the MUD invisible. This ability, normally allowing them to perform maintenance on the MUD without interfering with the players, allows them to eavesdrop on conversations that are assumed to be private. Eventually, on the MUD, a vote was taken and the MUD was modified to disallow wizards from moving invisibly through the MUD.

For both of these examples of developing social rules, one could find other MUDs where the rules could be reversed based on the opinions of the users. This gives MUD users far more mobility than most have in real life. If a user does not like the "local laws" of a MUD, they can choose to play in another where the rules are more to their liking. This is another reason people are drawn to MUDs, which Turkle does not discuss in great detail.

Turkle uses the term "bricolage" repeatedly. Bricolage was coined by Claude Lvi-Strauss, who defined it as "theoretical tinkering". Turkle defines it as a process "by which individuals and cultures use the objects around them to develop and assimilate ideas." Bricolage is used in creating on-line personae. On-line, people can take elements of the world that appeal to them. They can create their characters as an artist would a collage, taking pieces that are not necessarily related, but creating relationships between them that lead to a whole greater than those components. Additionally, these components can be symbols instead of real objects, and the symbolism counts more than the existence of the actual component.

In addition to allowing for creativity, on-line worlds allow for multiplicity. On-line life allows people to run parallel lives, whereas RL role playing (within a game or within day-to-day interactions with others) involves stepping in and out of the roles in series. In real life, people can be a hard-nosed business executive one moment and, upon going home, become a warm parent the next. It is very difficult to be both at the same time in the same place. While on-line, people can run different personae in different computer windows, switching quickly and seamlessly between each and interacting with people who do not necessarily know about any persona other than the one before them on their own screens.

According to Turkle, this multiplicity leads to open communication between the selves, whereas a unitary identity creates censorship and silences characteristics that contradict the unitary self. This communication leads to a blurred sense of selves on a continuum. The characteristics of the different selves can be shared by others along the continuum and utilized as needed. Behaviors and thoughts that are developed on-line can be brought over to real life personae through this communication. As the structures of real life effect the virtual worlds created on-line, so do those virtual structures effect real life.

The development of on-line personae, worlds, and social structures do not occur in a vacuum. The ideas and dreams of people create these things in the virtual worlds in which they play. If we consider the Internet as a communication medium, we see that the medium has yet to show its limits. The drive to express one's imagination and a desire to communicate with others will continue to push the use of the Internet as a communication and presentation medium. Real life limitations in expressing oneself, such as geography, age, race, or social status, are becoming less relevant as more people find access to the Internet.

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All contents Copyright 2004, Daniel Adinolfi.