Sherry Turkle
Interviewed by John Papageorge

Professor Sherry Turkle studies the emotional relationships people have with their computers.

The MIT professor of sociology reports on the unhealthy ramifications of such online follies as an 80-year-old man carrying on a year-long affair with a New Jersey man by pretending to be a girl from Tennessee.

Is this anecdote comical? Perhaps. But Turkle believes serious problems could have developed from this situation.

What would have happened if the 80-year-old man had been an underage boy pulling a prank? Now you're talking about soliciting a minor, says Turkle. What about the guilt and shame the New Jersey man would have felt if he had made sexual advances toward a young child?

Turkle, who recently wrote a novel titled Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, focuses attention on the nuances of role playing and conducting romantic interactions online. She has also explored the phenomenon of cybersex and cybermasturbation, which is also known as "tiny sex."

She discovered through her own experimentation that these acts can quickly become intimate experiences shared with another human being; one doesn't have to feel as if he or she is all alone at a computer console.

"I think as people realize that there's the presence of another person, they're going to be much more cautious about 'tiny sex,' " Turkle says. "People will start to experience 'tiny sex' as 'tiny lovemaking' and not as 'tiny one-night stand' but 'tiny involvement with another person' -- smart grownups are cautious about who they sleep with precisely for this reason."

Turkle's listening skills -- what she terms "a return of Freudian sensitivity to language that people use to express themselves" -- are her greatest tools in studying the complicated world of cyberculture. "People say, 'Oh, a computer's just a tool,'" Turkle relays. "But I'm listening to the language they're using to describe their tool, and I'm thinking, 'Please. There's something to study here.'"


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