Transcript of Sherry Turkle Interview

Enjoy the warm sounds of Silicon Valley Radio. MIT Professor Sherry Turkle explores the relationships people have with computers and technology. In her new book, Life on the Screen, she reports on the psychology of role-playing on the Internet.

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Sherry, could you talk about a recent study dramatizing the complicated issues of role-playing on the Internet?
Sherry Turkle:One of the things that happens on the Internet is that you can be who you say you are. It's one of the appeals. It's one of the things that I argue gives it a kind of excitement as a place to live out your fantasies and experiment with aspects of yourself. But it also means that when you meet people online they're not necessarily who they say they are.

I'd been interviewing, over two years in Boston, a 43-year-old man who was of interest to me as a subject because he was having an online relationship that had become very important to him. And he was having it with a woman. He was married, and he was having this online flirtation with a woman, who he thought was 23 and from Memphis, whose online name was something like "Fabulous Hot Babe." Now in fact it wasn't Fabulous Hot Babe, it was something else. But it was just like Fabulous Hot Babe. And our conversations really were about how to think about what was happening there in terms of other relationships and whether this was infidelity. We were discussing how to think about that, what it had done to him, and what he had discovered about himself in the course of the relationship. And for me, it was kind of case study of somebody who was taking seriously an online romance.

At one of our sessions he came in ashen-faced, and I said, "What's the matter?" Actually the first thing that had gone through my mind was that his wife had found out about the relationship, which was something we had been discussing for a year. But that was not the case. He had discovered, actually because the person finally confessed to him, that Fabulous Hot Babe wasn't a 23-year-old woman in Memphis, but an 80-year-old man in a nursing home in Miami. [laughs] The thrust of our conversation now was how he was going to deal with this and how he felt about this.

I was very struck by the story because when you tell the story, people laugh. And of course they laugh because this was the most exciting thing that had happened to the 80-year-old and everybody on his floor in the nursing home in Miami; there was kind of a group participation in Fabulous Hot Babe's adventures. But it wouldn't be so funny if it was a 12-year-old boy or a 12-year-old girl who had been playing Fabulous Hot Babe and had somehow been able to fool this 43-year-old. Not only wouldn't it have been funny, but we would have been concerned for the 12-year-old. I also want to put in my vote for a great deal of concern for the 43-year-old, who would have been bereft had he thought that he was having a relationship with a child.

So where this story leads me is to both want to respect and make sure there's lots of space for adults to experiment and play (and with the widest possible experiments in multiplicity since I believe they can be very productive for many people), but to also try to protect people in some way so that they need not be afraid that they're dealing with children in these explorations.

Now, do I think that sometimes children will get into these environments in the same way that underage people regularly get their hands on Penthouse and Playboy, even though you have it behind Plexiglas or behind counters in convenience stores? I think that some children will get in, but I think that what you need to have is a sense that that is a transgression, just as kids know that somehow getting their hands on that stuff beyond the Plexiglas is a transgression.

And, you know, our society works because some things are transgressions, and they don't happen that often. Sometimes they happen, and we know how to think about that.

I don't think there has to be a sort of total barrier. I think there's more a sense of dividing the world of the Internet into places where children should be and children shouldn't be.

SVR:What's "tiny sex" and "gender trouble"?
Turkle:Well, tiny sex is a word that means sexual or erotic interaction online.

Usually it's two people typing to each other, and what they're doing is typing erotic messages. And they're describing actions that are erotic actions. For years tiny sex has been described as typing erotic content to another player, sometimes with one hand and sometimes with two.

In other words people are often self-stimulating, masturbating as they do this. And I think one of the things that people find quite surprising is how quickly tiny sex can become tiny lovemaking.

That is to say, it's not just sort of typing at some computer program that spews back language to you. It's typing to another real person.

Again, this is a phenomenon of early days. You hear people talk about it, and they treat it as though, "Oh, I'm just going to go on the computer and I'm going to, you know, have tiny sex," as though what they're dealing with there is the computer.

I think that as people realize there's the presence of another person they can be moved in all kinds of unexpected ways -- and I'm not trying to make a bad pun there. It might move you or touch you emotionally in all kinds of unexpected ways. And you learn about others. They have their vulnerabilities and you have your vulnerabilities. People are going to be much more cautious when they realize this.

SVR:Did you ever experiment while online?
Turkle:I've never experimented as a man. But I have experimented as a woman.
SVR:What were some of your thoughts from those experiments?
Turkle:My thoughts were that this is not doing something with a computer, and that so many of the people I had interviewed prior to doing my own experiment had spoken about this as though this was nothing. And I realized very quickly that there was something -- and there was some denial going on for many of the people I had interviewed.

It so quickly became apparent that you're aware of the presence of another person who's judging you. And I did not believe I was alone in this: worrying about who's judging you, who you want to please, who you want to like you. I mean, the whole world of emotional questions comes up. And I think we should take it seriously.

SVR:What do you think your greatest assets are as a sociologist and as someone who has a perspective on the cyberculture?
Turkle:My greatest asset as someone who's studying the cyberculture is, I think, my listening ability. I think it's due to my psychoanalytic training, my clinical training, my years of study with Lacanian and my immersion in a world of French psychoanalysis, where every word is examined in a way. They called it a "return to Freud," and it was a return to Freud in the sense of a tremendous sensitivity to the language that people use to express themselves. I think this makes me a listener.

So other people say, "Oh, a computer's just a tool." And I'm listening to these people and the language they're using as they're describing their tool, and I'm thinking, "Please. There's something to study here." That has given me a tremendous professional advantage because for years people were jumping around saying, "The computer's just a tool. What a waste of time to ask people about their feelings for it." But I'm listening to people and hearing that it's much more than that for them.

SVR:Are people intimidated by the fact that you pick up on language?
Turkle:Oh, I think the people who like me appreciate it. That's who I am. On the other hand, I must say that I don't go around therapizing, just as in the same way that I don't therapize the people who I'm studying. I don't go around therapizing my friends and family.

You know, there's some point at which you have to kind of say, "Look, I'm here to have a relationship. I'm here to have a good time." I mean, if somebody asks me, I'll report to them what I'm hearing. I like to see it as one of my strengths.

Now you asked me about my greatest fears vis-a-vis the technology. I think that I'm somewhat concerned about a culture of stimulation. I'm not concerned about the culture of stimulation as much as I am concerned about the culture of overstimulation. I think we know very little about the effects of the inundation of kids today with the fast cuts, the 50 commercials, the continual, changing, stimulating media environment.

SVR:When you went to visit the 80-year-old at the nursing home, what was your first impression?
Turkle:I thought, 'This is all a very serious business.' I mean, these are real people having relationships with other real people.
SVR:The other people on the floor were all involved in it, though?
Turkle:Yeah, people knew. But that's the point I want to make about this. I tell the story when I speak because I'm looking for the laugh because then I want to say, 'Hold on. I think this is very important.'

It's funny, we're talking here at a conference where I told that story. And a woman came up to me after I told it and said, "Would it have been as funny if an 80-year-old woman had been impersonating a 25-year-old man and having an affair with a woman?"

And I thought the question was very interesting because it's exactly the sort of question that cyberspace provokes. It allows us to do these thought experiments in which people really learn more about our construction of gender. And we learn what others think is acceptable and funny and how we think about men's and women's roles.

SVR:Do you have another interesting anecdote along the same lines as Fabulous Hot Babe -- such as a case study?
Turkle:I think my favorite story is one that also raises some very profound questions. There's a story I recount in Life on the Screen that really underscores something that's going to be a big problem for a lot of people, although the story happened to me. It was my story of going online and discovering someone online called Dr. Sherry, who advertised herself as a cyberpsychologist who was doing interviews and studying people in this virtual environment. And I hadn't created Dr. Sherry. This was a character created by other people.

And the question was, what is my relationship with this character created by other people who had in a sense used my name as a trademark? Or a mnemonic, a kind of cultural mnemonic for being a cybershrink, in brief?

I think that each of us is a persona. Each of us has spent a lifetime creating a persona. And how do we really feel about its potential appropriation in virtual space by other people?

You know, we protect our persona in real life, in a variety of ways -- physically, it's how you look; people know if it's you. Is it fraud if somebody takes your name or your persona online, in a kind of playful way, since this was being done in a playful way? There was no intent to hurt me. And as a matter of fact it turned out the intent was to flatter me, by taking my name in a kind of virtual appropriation, as though I were a trademark for Cybershrink. I think those kinds of questions about your identity and how much you can protect it are going to become very salient.

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