Art + Thought / AF 1992 - Sherry Turkle


Emerson said that "dreams and beasts are two keys by which we find out the secrets of our own nature. They are test objects." Like us and not like us, they were the mirrors for modernism, the test objects of Freud and Darwin. The computer is our new mirror, the mirror for the postmodern.

Like dreams and beasts, the computer stands on the margins. It is mind that is not yet mind. It is inanimate yet interactive. It does not think, but neither it is external to thought. It stands poised between the thought and the thought-of. On the boundaries between matter, life, and mind, it causes us to rethink the way we have drawn the lines.

Computers are psychological machines, not only because of their as-yet very primitive psychologies but because they encourage us to reflect upon our own. They are evocative objects, not only because of their existence but because of their availability. Current reconsiderations of mind and machine, refracted in the language of art, are sparked by people's relationships with an object that they can touch, use, bring into their homes. As computers became ubiquitous in the 1980s, they carried with them a new culture of the self. And they carried with them a new technological aesthetic.

Computers provide new forms of representation -the inscription of reality in program. They provide a new kind of object - the computational object: frozen on the screen, belonging to the world of the physical and the mathematical, the concrete and the psychological. They provide a new set of ideas for thinking about process - among them, powerful way of thinking about recursion, self-reference, simulation, and the interaction of inner objects to create emergent phenomena. Together these ideas shape an aesthetic that depends not on the real but on its representation and appropriation, not on tangible objects but on the reflection of mirrors in mirrors -the play of signifiers torn from what they signify.

Postmodern art communicates the sense of a world lived through substitutes, registering a sense of reality as if perceived in exposure, through the eye of a lens. The computer presence heightens this sensibility and moves us toward a sense of reality as if perceived on a video screen.

This electronic reality provides new and compelling forms of interaction. One can become lost in the idea of mind building and in the sense of merging with a universal system. The computer offers a promise of perfection. The world on the screen has the purity of thought unsullied by the messiness and complexity of the real. And instead of a quest for an idealized person now there is the computer as a second self.

The experience of programming is of the appropriation and externalization of thought. Like Narcissus and his reflection, people can fall in love with the artificial worlds they have created or that have been built for them by others. The experience is heady. For some it is reassuring. Insecure in our understanding of ourselves, decentered by psychoanalysis and structuralist and deconstructivist philosophies, we search for mirrors not to admire our reflection but to see who we are, indeed if we are. When mind is embodied in program there is the fantasy both of projection of self and of achieving a meeting of the minds with a machine.

Mind meeting or merging with machine is a powerful theme for the contemporary sensibility, touching a point of painful vulnerability. Our characteristic malaise is not dominated by sexual repression but by the fragility of self and thus the impossibility of connection. In hysteria, the neurosis of Freud's time, a sexual thought found its expression in a physical symptom: a paralyzed limb spoke for an unacceptable wish. Today, cases of hysteria have virtually disappeared. Indeed, clinicians report that patients rarely suffer from a clear sympton at all. Early experience of love rejected are transformed into rage against the other who frustrates and terror before the other to whom one is so vulnerable. There is lack of feeling, fear of relationship, a sense of emptiness and not being. These symptoms translate into a paradox: a terror of intimacy and a terror of being alone.

Machines come into this picture in several ways. One can find oneself in the machine. One can see oneself as the machine, and one can turn to the world of machines for what is too frightening to ask of other people: one can turn to the machine for relationship. With the computer, each possibility is enhanced. Programming is a new projective screen and confirmation for the self. As a "mind machine", the computer offers increasingly sophisticated models with which to indentify. And finally, to the terror of intimacy and the terror of being alone, the computer offers a schizoid compromise. Interactive and reactive, the computer offers the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. You can be a loner yet never alone.

The mirroring of mind in the machine and as the machine are compelling but not always reassuring. In many ways what we see there is an affront. If mind is machine, who is the actor? Where is responsibility, spirit, soul?

Copernicus and Darwin took away our special role as the centerpiece of creation, but we could still think of ourselves as the center of ourselves. Freud's notion of the unconscious subverted the idea of the centered self -our personal drama is played out on another stage with other and unknown actors. But the Freudian unconscious had a certain abstract quality. It allowed people to slide between "I am my unconscious" and the more acceptable "I am influenced by my unconscious".

The theorists who followed Freud reasserted the power of an active and autonomous ego, making it easier for psychoanalysis to enter the general culture as a triumph of reason over the uncivilized within each of us. Psychoanalytic ego psychology offered a version of the unconscious acceptable to the conscious. The computer culture takes up where psychoanalysis left off. It takes the idea of a decentered self and makes it more concrete by modeling mind as program or as multiprocessing machine. The "I" is a collection of rules or inner programs, whose connections, negociations, and competitions create their own illusions.

Psychoanalysis has taught us that resistance to a theory is part of its cultural impact. Resistance to the idea of the unconscious and the irrational leads to a view of people as essentially logical beings. Resistance to a computational model of mind leads to the view that what is essential in the human is what is uncapturable by any language or formalism. When we use computational models to explain more and more of our behaviour, we seem compelled to define as our essence something we can think of as beyond information or computation.

Images of mind as program, mechanism, and information processing have provoked their own reactions. Although many feared that computers would lead to increasingly mechanistic views about people, the reality has been far more complex. People seem willing to allow almost unlimited rationality to computers while maintaining a sharp line between computers and people by taking the essence of human nature to be what comuters cannot do.
But defining people in relation to what computers cannot do in terms of performance leaves one in a highly vulnerable position, vulnerable to what clever engineers might come up with next. There is a more subtle response. People begin by admitting that human minds are some kind of computer and then go on to find ways to think of people as something more as well. When they do so, their thoughts often turn to their feelings. The human is the emotional. Or, the human is the unprogrammable.

As a self-conscious response to Enlightenment rationalism, what Romanticism longed for was clear: feelings, the "law of the heart". At that time, in reaction to the view that was most human was reason, sensibility was declared more important than logic, the heart more human than the mind. Now, with the language of programming, the computer provides us a new discourse for describing the divided self. One one side is placed that which is simulable; on the other that which cannot be simulated. People who say they are comfortable with the idea of mind as machine assent to the premise that simulated thinking is thinking but cannot bring themselves to propose further that simulated feeling is feeling.
Simulated love is never love.

The 1980s have been a turning point. The idea of program, of artificial intelligence and simulation, became interpretive myth for the culture as a whole. The new myth separates feeling from thought, subject from object, reality from representation. "Purified" thought, objects, and representations circulate but not freely. They take the form of images on a screen. Engaging with them requires that we companion a new transformative technology. Intimacy with a camera allowed the appropriation of signifiers with no necessary external referent. You court an object that produces an ephemeral, electronic trace. The photons dance; there is no one and nothing to touch. The movement from photograph to screen image is the most recent step in the historical devaluation of the artifact. Beyond mirroring, photographing, and rephotographing the real we move on to pure simulation: the appropriation of the hyperreal.

Sherry Turkle is Professor of Sociology in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She received a joint doctorate from Harvard University in Sociology and Personality Psychology. She has written numerous articles on psychonanlysis and culture and on the "subjective side" of people's relationships with technology. She is the author of Psychoanalytic Politics: Freud's French Revolution (Basic Books, 1978; Second Edition, Guilford Press, 1991) and The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit (Simon and Schuster, 1984).

Text originally published in ArtFutura's 1992 catalog.