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Saturday, November 26, 2022

A Life Spent Focused on What Computers Are Doing to Us

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For Turkle, the rest is history. In time she became persuaded that the image of two people sitting in a restaurant, each looking intently at an iPhone instead of talking to the other, is horrifying. Worse yet is when only one of them is glued to the phone and the other is staring into space. No matter what people tell themselves or each other, she now says, the one not on the phone feels discounted. Feeling discounted, Turkle sincerely believes, one develops defenses that tamper dangerously with the ability to see oneself in others: the essence of what it means to be a human among humans. Her mission became, and still is, to sound a warning.

This highly compressed summary of Sherry Turkle’s intellectual progress toward the study of “how computers change not only what we do but who we are” does not do justice to the pleasure a reader gets from following it in the pages of “The Empathy Diaries,” where it is recorded with a grace and lucidity that are inspiriting.

In a memoir written by a person of accomplishment, the interwoven account of childhood and early influences is valuable only insofar as it sheds light on the evolution of the individual into the author of the memoir we are reading. For me, the ongoing story of Turkle’s family life seemed to hit a single note — one of sympathy and gratitude, to be sure, but one that did not necessarily deepen the main narrative. However, with Turkle’s story of her marriage to Seymour Papert her personal adventures struck gold.

Papert himself was an original. A gifted computer scientist, he, along with most of his colleagues, was something of a sociopath. For example: Expected home for a dinner party he and Sherry are giving, he is hours late; then, instead of appearing, he calls to say he’s at the airport because a conversation with a mathematician doing work in Tunisia has grown so compelling he is flying to Tunis with him. Dinner party? What dinner party? Papert’s inability ever to put himself in Sherry’s place was monumental.

At M.I.T., she tells us, most of the engineers and scientists felt the greatest joy in imagining “the mind as a computational machine … behavior as programs, as software as yet undetermined.” In this scenario emotional influences on behavior went unacknowledged. In Papert’s world a “good conversation” was valued “more highly than common courtesy. … To be interesting, Seymour did not have to be kind. He had to be brilliant.” And if you weren’t the sort of brilliant that he was, you were something less than real to him.

The anecdotes that illustrate this marriage encapsulate, in an inspired way, the dilemma Turkle has spent her whole life exploring: the rupture in understanding between someone devoted to the old-fashioned practice of humanist values and someone who doesn’t know what the word “human” really means.

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