Untangling the WEB What's real? Are we defined by the e-mail we send and the chat rooms we visit? Sherry Turkle helps us sort it out.

April 27, 1996|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN STAFF

In cyberspace, you can find anything -- sex, friendship, useful information, amusing distractions and no doubt some entrepreneur who will make sure that when a certain 4-year-old girl turns coy eyes on you and asks, "Do you have a little something for me from out of town?" you actually do.

But this is real, not virtual, life. And so Sherry Turkle, the so-called Margaret Mead of the Internet, finds herself on this particular day at perhaps the last cyber-free zone left on the planet, the Woman's Industrial Exchange, the endearingly anachronistic shop and tea room located in downtown Baltimore, not on the World Wide Web.

There is no double-clicking here, no Pentium-processed, 28.8K bps, speed-dialed, instant-present-in-a- box in this gentle-paced shop, even if you have just five minutes before a crowd of people expects you to start lecturing on the dizzying changes the Internet has wrought on us.

But Ms. Turkle can do olde shoppe as easily as she does SimCity; she can do mommy on a business-and-guilt trip as easily as she can do postmodern psychoanalytic theory. Many of us shift and shuffle at will, she believes, which is why the windows that have come to dominate computers are also a potent metaphor for the way we've come to view ourselves, both in the real world and, as she says, "on screen."

"That's what interests me, how people negotiate the boundaries between the two," says Ms. Turkle, the author of the recently published book, "Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet" (Simon & Schuster, $25).

She calls it "cycling." Just as we've grown comfortable calling up different windows on the screen and cycling through them -- the spreadsheet here, the word processing program there -- so have we grown accustomed to integrating the different identities that we've developed both on and off screen.

Ms. Turkle has had a number of personal -- and sometimes disorienting -- experiences playing with identity: She tested out being a man on a Multi-User Domain (MUD), a cyberspace meeting place where participants' self-created characters interact with others in equally imagined scenarios.

Another time on-line, she bumped into a character named Dr. Sherry, a cyber-psychologist who was interviewing people about the psychology of MUDs. Whoa. Talk about an alternate universe. The character was obviously based on the real Dr. Sherry Turkle, a sociology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has studied the relationship between people and computers for about 20 years.

She gained particular acclaim for the book, "The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit," written in 1984. Even in the relatively short time since then, computers have drastically changed, as has our relationship to them, she believes.

"The computer culture as a whole is moving in directions that value the styles of work that women feel most comfortable with," she says, noting how the newest computer games, for example, are learned by basically tinkering around, rather than by reading a manual and following a more linear, step-by-step style of thinking.

"And then there's the Internet, which is about communicating. Large numbers of women are very invested in maintaining communications with family, with friends, with kids who have left the house. The computer has become about that."

Ms. Turkle delights in finding telling examples of this -- like the MIT student on an all-nighter and his insomniac mother back home, each discovering the other awake and engaging in a far-flung, confession-and-reassurance session only a mother and child can have.

"He never would have talked to her on the telephone about his fears," Ms. Turkle says, but with e-mail "he was able to maintain his sense of distance, his sense of being away, rather than a sense of running home to Mom. I think families are taking on a new amount of richness because of this."

Surprising to many -- and unlike the cyber Dr. Sherry -- Ms. Turkle does all her research in person, not via e-mail. (She's personally an avid e-mailer and goes crazy on the road when she can't find the right kind of phone hookup for her PowerBook.) She is, after all, a clinical psychologist by training and not, as many in the computer field are, from an engineering or programming background. And besides, she needs to see the differences -- and the similarities -- between who her subjects are in person and on-screen: Like the 43-year-old married man in Boston tormented by the implications of a cyberaffair he was having with someone he thought was a 23-year-old woman in Memphis, who instead turned out to be an 80-year-old man in Miami.

Her research delves into heady stuff, provocative areas that leave you asking questions like: Which is your true self, the one on-screen zapping off a heated e-mail to someone, or the person you are in the flesh? What is intelligence, and can your computer have it? Can we even divide the real from the virtual any more?

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