Turkle on computer socialization

I bought Beyond Calculation for the (prescient) Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown essay on the effects of ubiquitous computing, but now I'm finding it an interesting document. It was published in 1997 to coincide with ACM's 50th birthday (and, roughly, the birth of the computer) and it has speculative essays from a bunch of the stars of computer science--at the time of its writing, anyway. What's interesting is that by asking people to speculate on the next 50 years--the ostensible topic of the book--it reveals a lot about their understanding of today, without the fog of having them try to explain their current position. So, in other words, it's readable and captures the essence of what all of these people are thinking without getting bogged down in details. It's also interesting to see how quickly some ideas are outdated (Vint Cerf appears to assume that the Internet is still going to be running over wires in 2047--really fast wires), while others (such as Weiser and Seely Brown's) are dead-on and, in fact, still ahead of the curve.

But I digress. I really want to talk about Sherry Turkle's essay on how children's understanding of the technology of their lives changed as the technology changed. Here are some quotes:

...as human beings become increasingly intertwined with the technology and each other via the technology,old distinctions between what is specifically human and specifically technological become more complex.

She discusses how understanding the working of everyday technology has become a set of metaphors projected onto black boxes, rather than an actual direct understanding of the functionality.

Fifty years ago, a child's world was full of things that could be understood in simple, mechanical ways. A bicycle could be understood in terms of its pedals and gears and a wind-up car in terms of its clockwork springs. Elecronic devices such as simple radios could, with some difficulty, be brought into the old system. Since the end of the 1970s, the introduction of "intelligent" electronic toys and games has changed this understanding dramatically. When they were first introduced, some children insisted on trying to understand these intelligent toys in the same ways that they had understood mechanical systems. Some children tried to take off the back cover of an electronic toy or game to see what went on inside. But when they did so, all they could find was a chip or two, some batteries and some wire. These new objects presented a scintillating surface and exciting, complex behavior. However, they offered no window onto their internal structure as did things with gears, pulleys, levers, or even radio tubes.


There was nowhere children could go with it, nothing more they could say about it. [...] So the children turned to a way of understanding where they did have more to say: They turned to a psychological way of understanding.

[...]from the children's earliest encounters with computational toys and games, it was clear that whether or not they thought these objects were alive, children were absolutely sure that how the toys moved could not help them anwer the question. Children discussed the computer's life in terms of the computer's apparent psychology.

This psychologizing, this anthropomorphizing, jibes very closely to my animism hypothesis.
Those of us who grew up in an era where you could still take the phone apart, puncture Stretch Armstrong, and take apart Rockem Sockem Robots have a set of expectations about the world. We expect to be able to understand/unpack/deconstruct the world that, when seen in its components somehow "makes sense." For the generation born after, say, 1985--the ones who are the leading edge consumers of today's most advanced personal technologies--this is no longer the case.

If you take Lakoff and Johnson's perspective (I'm reading their Philosophy in the Flesh right now, it's very interesting though I wish there was a "for Dummies" version that skipped all the philosophical pedantry) that our perception of the world, the patterns with which we interpret what's going on, are formed from our earliest physical experiences with the world, we're looking at a major shift here. Lakoff and Johnson talk about metaphors of minds as machines--we often use machine analogies to understand how minds work--what happens when understandable machines become as rare in childrens' experiences as farm animals are today?

I posit that what happens is just as Turkle described, they (we!) start projecting sentience onto the objects in our world, but because it's so socially unacceptable (being that the previous generation, the ones who set the rules for what is acceptable to believe, still believe in machines as boxes with gears and motors), it becomes internalized, superstitious. So does this mean that the society run by today's 20 year-olds is heading toward a global cargo cult, with exorcists replacing repairmen and Fry's stores turning into actual cathedrals? I bet not--people are smarter than that--but I also bet that there's going to be more superstition, maybe presented as "high design product differentiators," than ever before, eventually leading to something that is much more like animism than its believers will admit.

Designing for that world--the world of, say, 2007--will be a trip.

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"Those of us who grew up in an era where you could still take the phone apart, puncture Stretch Armstrong, and take apart Rockem Sockem Robots have a set of expectations about the world."

I don't buy this. Do you then assume that the generation before these toys played and learned and developed in some yet more "mechanical" way? And before that? And before that? And do you imply that "kids today" are lacking some set of skills that you (and I) have? And what is all this hand-waving by Turkle about "some children" trying to disassemble their toys to explain them, and other children inventing psychologies for their toys? Did she just happen to find a crop of kids who were right on that cusp of being mechanically inclined, yet willing to find other ways of understanding? Of course not.

Even for adults, there's clearly a grey area in how we relate to most technology. I don't really understand how computer hardware works--it's largely magic to me--but I can change a video card or hard drive. I don't really understand how server software is constructed, but I can build things that use servers. In both cases I also constantly ascribe anthropomorphic values to these machines that help me relate to them--"server's acting up, is the hard drive full?" "My computer doesn't like that attatchment, better run some virus software."

Consider also that there are many other areas in which there's an increasing cultural loss of mechanical comprehensiveness, auto-repair for one. Used to be that a car mechanic could learn to fix cars, then fix cars for the rest of his life. You think mechanics can fix hybrid cars? Or that it would be worthwhile to take six months off to go to school to learn to fix hybrid cars? In ten years, will there still be people tinkering with their cars in their garages (classic cars aside)?

BTW, your link to "animism hypothesis" seems wrong... it goes to a post about a review of your book?




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