Sherry Turkle:
Surface, Surface Everywhere...   

A recent example of postmodernist philosophy can be found in the work of MIT professor Sherry Turkle, in her book Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. Turkle studied the way people interact on so-called MUDs or role-playing games on the Internet, in which they play fictional characters in equally fictitious "worlds," created with words. In a typical MUD, text on the screen is used to describe environments, situations, characters and actions. Players at various computers, who are all logged into the same MUD, "act" in this virtual world by typing a description of what they are doing or by typing their side of the dialogue, which is then viewed by other players on their own screens and responded to.

In studying all this, Sherry Turkle concluded that these experiences can help people discover a postmodern way of knowing. Just as they recognize that the computer screen is merely a play of surface simulations to be explored, so they come to see reality the same way.

"If there is no underlying meaning, or a meaning we shall never know, postmodern theorists argue that the privileged way of knowing can only be through an exploration of surfaces," Turkle writes. "This makes social knowledge into something that we might navigate much as we explore the Macintosh screen and its multiple layers of files and applications."

For the most part, she says, computer users who have achieved this new way of knowing, "suspend disbelief and become absorbed in what is happening on the screen." They are happy "to take the program at interface value."

Since everything is surfaces to be explored, and no surface has any more legitimacy than any other, the "embodied" life we live on a day-to-day basis has no more reality than the role-playing games on the Internet. Instead, for the MUD player, reality becomes what is referred to as "RL" -- "Real Life" -- which is just another role-playing game.

"...MUD players can develop a way of thinking in which life is made up of many windows and RL is only one of them," Turkle writes.

For Turkle, MUD players also discover that the idea that they are a unified self is also another fiction. By engaging in endless role-playing games, they come to see that they can be many selves and that none of those characters is any less real than what they think is there true self -- all are there to be played out and explored.

Turkle makes clear that this new experience of the self isn't merely an alternative model of identity -- it is also the basis for an alternative lifestyle. So long as we were attached to the old model of identity, she says, "the unitary self maintains its oneness by repressing all that does not fit. Thus censored, the illegitimate parts of the self are not accessible."

But with the new, postmodern, self: "We do not feel compelled to rank or judge the elements of our multiplicity. We do not feel compelled to exclude what does not fit."

Once that is accomplished, the self is prepared to play out all its fantasies, living life as a play of fictions. In effect, Turkle is describing how someone becomes an enthusiastic participant in the symbolic arenas of contemporary culture. People can then devote themselves to indulging their fantasies without guilt or discomfort, since what they do via simulation has the same status as what they do in the rest of life. Nor is any of it a form of transgression, since the judging self that might label some fantasies off limits has been conveniently eliminated.

We can then live like "Stewart," who, Turkle tells us, is "logged on to one MUD or another for at least forty hours a week. It seems misleading to call what he does there playing. He spends his time constructing a life that is more expansive than the one he lives in physical reality."

"In sum, MUDs blur the boundaries between self and game, self and role, self and simulation," she writes. "One player says, 'You are what you pretend to are what you play.' "

It isn't hard to see where Sherry Turkle's philosophy leads. It inevitably takes us to a state of political apathy in which we cease asking how we are being manipulated by simulations, and just enjoy them. In fact, Turkle's approving description of the way computer users, "suspend disbelief," and are content to take what happens on the screen "at interface value" is precisely the way the characters are described as living in totalitarian world of The Futurological Congress. They enjoy the manipulated facade, without questioning where it comes from, who created it, or for what purpose. This is the attitude the manipulators of deceptive simulations (advertisers, politicians, et al) want everyone to have: don't ask if all those wonderful images are painted on the gates of Hell; just enjoy the pretty pictures. Let everyone eat, drink and exchange sexually-charged messages on the Internet, because we will never understand what it all means, anyway.

What we are seeing with all of these ideas is an effort to "deconstruct" or "deactualize" reality. In the vision they offer, the popular culture that appropriates everything and turns it into a simulation and a story line becomes the model for the self, society and reality. Life becomes a symbolic arena for the acting out of fantasies.

With this in mind, we can now provide a more complete portrait of the culture of advanced technology and simulation. On the one hand, it is trying to create realistic simulations that are under our control, so they will give us whatever we can't get from the "nonfiction" world. On the other, it is using science and technology to give us the kind of control over the physical world that we have over simulations, and to describe reality as a kind of simulation. We can thus see one of the essential characteristics of this new culture, which acts as if it is trying to transcend the limits of existence by creating simulations that seem real and by making reality more like a simulation. It is similarly trying to accomplish this in its philosophy, with efforts to argue that simulation and reality aren't so far apart as we may have thought.

This tendency can also be found in another idea, that simulation and "reality" will, one day, merge or become indistinguishable as a result of the progress of science and technology. Here is an expression of this idea in a passage from the novel The City and the Stars, which was referred to in the previous chapter. The passage describes the inhabitant of a future city as living inside a room or chamber that can generate perfect physical illusions on his command.

"Another wish, and machines which he had never seen would fill the chamber with the projected images of any articles of furniture he might need. Whether they were 'real' or not was a problem that had bothered few men for the last billion years. Certainly they were no less real than that other imposter, solid matter...."

What all of these philosophies reveal is the way the society of simulation, entertainment and fantasy is creating a vision of the universe fashioned after itself. These aren't the only philosophies produced by contemporary society, but they have growing importance and they have the potential to coalesce into an ideology and a source of cultural legitimation.

These philosophies give us a vision of life as a television program in which we frequently change channels to keep from getting bored. The universe becomes a metaphysical theme park -- cosmic Disney -- and we are all enjoying a participatory adventure, on the ride of our lives. Even the self ends up as nothing but a series of themed attractions. It is a world in which little is demanded of us; in which the stakes of life aren't so large, and the consequences of action aren't so final. It is also a world in which life ceases merely to imitate television. As Sherry Turkle makes clear in the title to her book, now that we are blessed with high-technology simulations, that's us we are watching on the screen.


There is also a discussion of Sherry Turkle's ideas in part two of an essay on the movie Groundhog Day.

And the section, The Age of Simulation, is filled with essays relevant to Sherry Turkle's work, including:
The Deconstruction of Reality - Modernism: Surface and Depth
and A Culture Based on Fantasy and Acting Out.


Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995).

---Full passages quoted from Life on the Screen can be found on the following pages: 47-8; 103; 192; 261; 262; 193; 192.

The City and the Stars, Arthur C. Clarke (New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1953) p. 13.