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Q&A: Sherry Turkle
Reflecting on mind and machine
By Kathryn Beaumont

Lose your cell phone, and your dependence on technology becomes all too apparent; but only 10 years ago, you could drive from home to work without talking to a soul. How and why do we form such intense attachments to new tech­nologies? That’s a question Sherry Turkle, Abby Rocke­feller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology and the director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and the Self, has been researching for more than 30 years. Here she offers some insights into her work.

You are a psychologist. How did you first become interested in technology and its relationship to psychology?
I came to MIT in the late 1970s and was struck by the intensity of the relationships my students had with technology. I had never thought much about computers as anything more than information processors. Once here, I met students and colleagues who claimed that building and programming computers was the most powerful intellectual and emotional experience of their lives. More than this, they used computer language to talk and to think about their minds. In the early years of the personal-computer culture, these new objects carried a conversation about mind, free will, what was alive and not alive, out of philosophy seminar rooms and into everyday life. I began to study computers as evocative objects for thinking about thinking.

Why did you form the MIT Initiative on Technology and the Self?
I wanted to provide an opportunity for a conversation about technology that put the focus on technology and our inner lives—not what technology does for us, but what it does to us, to our ways of seeing the world, to our ways of seeing ourselves.

How has your research changed over the years?
My most recent research has focused on “relational artifacts,” software agents and artificial creatures that are designed to form social relationships. For years I studied the “computer as Rorschach,” as a blank screen onto which people project personal meaning. With relational artifacts, the Rorschach metaphor breaks down in significant ways. Relational artifacts present themselves as having “states of mind” that are affected by their interactions with people.

One of the most striking results of this work is to find that the “killer app” for a new generation of information technology may well be nurturance—people drawn to computational creatures because they feel themselves to be in relationships with them. People want to feel connected to new forms of artificial life. So, for example, when children take care of robotic creatures, when these creatures seem to respond to that care, children not only attribute life to that creature but think about its aliveness in terms of the kind of relationship they have formed with it.

How are people’s current relationships with technology different from when you started researching them?
Today, the situation is more complex. New computational objects—personal digital assistants, cell phones, laptops—are even more intimate partners to their users, more like thought-prosthetics than simple tools. Yet even as the subjective side to the technology has become more apparent, its ubiquity has led to a cultural experience of it as background noise.

What do you hope will result from your work?
The goal in all of my work is to bring a richer discourse about objects to science and technology studies—one that is developmental, psychodynamic, and steeped in the experience of people’s daily lives and relationships.

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