Selves and computers

Author: joe

Saturday, 20 October, 2012 - 22:38

Sherry Turkle's work is amongst the most influential analyses of people's emotional engagement with online environments. Her ethnographic work on computer users in the 90s depicted the encounter of her background in psychoanalysis with the techno-utopianism of the MIT community in "Life on the Screen: Identity on the Age of the Internet". Her analysis of the relationship between selfhood and computer-mediated interaction started with the earlier work, "The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit" and has continued most recently in "Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other". Although some have characterised the trajectory of her work (in some ways, Turkle does this herself) as a movement from optimistic embrace of the possibilities that machines offer towards a more problematic view of how machines permit their users to become narcissists, the structure of these tensions can be seen throughout her work: Technically mediated control over human relationships can allow us to replace importantly liminal experiences with less risk-laden interactions. If such substitutions allow us to explore our identities, inhabit imaginative selves and bypass meatspace prejudice, so much the better; if they allow us avoid important coming-of-age rituals or maintain artificially arms-length distances to the people around us, then perhaps something is amiss.

Turkle finds an analogy between the interface of the modern computer GUI and the postmodern condition of the self. She finds that her respondents are able to switch between different selves by switching windows on the screen, and thus they are able to express and perform on their desktop interfaces the fragmented predicament of the self in postmodernity. The way that the enframing logic and style of media technologies reflects the conditions of subjectivity is a theme taken up in the work of Steven Shaviro whose analysis of networked culture (Connected: What It Means to Live in the Network Society, 2003) represents in its form the distributed, decentralised nature of both the network and the "fragmented and multiplied" self. Most recently, Shaviro's work on post-cinematic affect explores how the mirroring between subjectivity and mediation continues as cinematic editing styles demote concerns for continuity in favour of a mode which emphasises not only the non-linearity and glitch aesthetic facilitated by digital technologies but the neo-liberal tropes of precarity and just-in-time production. The artefacts of mediated culture now reflect a world in which not only is the casual employee's labour alienated, but also the specific instance of the self is, just like the media products consumed by the viewer, produced on-demand.

The encircling of media affordances and selfhood within similar frames of reference receives its most contemporary expression in the smartphone. The mobile phone is pervasive not only in the digitally advanced consumer societies of the developed world, but is also the technology of choice in developing countries as its practicality has leapfrogged other more bulky and expensive computing devices. The penetrative capacity of the smartphone ensures that people's lives in all their dimensions are accompanied into every corner of time and space with two-way media. Thus Urry's term "networked mobilities" is applicable equally to the identity of the owner as it is to the media products and interactions that the device enables. The pervasiveness that mobile computing brings about is a genuine shift from the previously separated and distinct experiences that constituted online life. Access to digital spaces is no longer a discretely portioned parcel of life but a continuous augmentation of most everyday activities, leading some commentators such as Nathan Jurgenson to argue that the diagnosis of technically mediated aspects of life as separate and inferior to "real life" in some way is guilty of a "digital dualism" which is at best anachronistic and at worst doesn't appreciate the entwined interlacing of physical and virtual life. Nevertheless to erase the distinction between the digital world and the space of embodied existence is to beg the question that Turkle and others would raise.

Categories: Turkle, Shaviro, Jurgenson, self, digital, media, affect, narcissism, mobile,
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