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Issue 33, December 1998

Cyberspace and post-modernism

Life on the Screen
By Sherry Turkle, Touchstone Books, 1997
Reviewed by Derek McMillan

WITTY AND well-written, Life on the Screen explores the strange world of cyberspace and the even stranger world of 'postmodernist' theories. Although not a Marxist, Sherry Turkle attempts both to clarify postmodern ideas and make explicit the differences between postmodernism and Marxism.

Multi User Domains, or MUDs, are areas in cyberspace where people interact who often will never meet in RL (real life). To users in the USA, predominantly middle class, male and white, MUD has become "an object to think with". They increasingly use the Internet to explore alternative gender and ethnic roles in the apparently safe environment of MUD.

Turkle deals with the increasing importance of simulations both in computer games and for applications such as warfare and economic planning, and compares the popular game Sim City 2000 with the planning software used in Washington. With both, the user is a prisoner of the implicit assumptions used by the programmer. In Sim City for example, race is never a factor in inner-city conflicts, and the solution to crime is to flood the streets with police.

A sociologist's child told him that the built-in bias of the programme against mixed-use development was 'just the way the game works': "My daughter's words seemed oddly familiar. A few months earlier someone had said virtually the same thing to me... while I was working at the White House. We were discussing the simulation model likely to be used by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to score proposals for health care reform. When I criticised one assumption, a colleague said to me 'Don't waste your breath', warning that it was hopeless to try to get CBO to change. Policy would have to adjust". Sherry Turkle does not reject simulations as such but believes that criticism should lead to simulations which help players challenge the inbuilt assumptions.

  Turkle uses the changing emphasis in computer science as a metaphor for the difference between Marxism and post-modernism, mentioning one philosophy student who believed that society could not "be understood in terms of any systematic theory. But he does believe that if we accept society's opacity we can learn at least to navigate its contours more effectively".

The rise of post-modernism is associated with the aftermath of the 1968 events in France, when a mass movement of the working class was derailed by the French Communist Party who, not for the first time, sought to confine it to legal and parliamentary channels. Several leading French intellectuals then responded to this defeat by retreating into non-Marxist or even pre-Marxist ideology.

In place of a battle to change society, they put a continual struggle to constitute the 'self'. In place of a battle against the ideology of the ruling class, they advocated manipulation of a kaleidoscope of competing ideologies. No longer concerned to change the world, they believed it impossible even to explain it.

While explaining these ideas in detail, the author also provides a fascinating insight into the developments of artificial intelligence, and the evolving debate around the ability of computers to show intellect or emotions.

In the 'Turing Test', humans and machines interact, and the machine makes the grade if it can pass for human. Turkle gives the example of a college student using the name 'Barry' who spent days in a Multi User Domain trying to seduce a piece of software called 'Julia', before concluding that "It is not clear whether Julia passed a Turing test or Barry failed one".

Turing tests are taking place in cyberspace all the time and Turkle was a little surprised to find a character in a MUD calling itself 'Dr Sherry' and conducting research in a virtual room. It was not clear whether the character was a real person or a programme written to simulate a character (known as a `bot) but she could be fairly certain that it wasn't her!

I found Life on the Screen a first class read. Whatever you think about the book, you can always contact the author on the Internet and give her your thoughts. Someone will respond... but will it be the `RL' Sherry Turkle?

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