The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit is an unusually interdisciplinary book by Sherry Turkle published in 1984. An ethnographic study of child and adult computer users, it draws from developmental psychology, Freudian psychoanalysis, and philosophy of mind, as well as traditions of gender studies and science and technology studies that were emerging as Turkle wrote the book in the early 1980s. It’s a book about how computers affect their users’ identities—hence the “human spirit” in the subtitle—but also about relationships between humans and computers and about what people imagine computers to be.
These imaginings of course contribute to the construction of computers themselves, but Turkle’s gaze is not on the invention and development of new machines. Rather, she conceives of the computer as a medium onto which users project their own personalities, an “evocative object” analogous to a Rorschach test.
In the first third of her book, Turkle explores the relationships between children and computers. She suggests that computers give children as young as four a discourse in which to approach metaphysical questions about the nature of life and of mind. Is a computerized tic-tac-toe machine alive? Does it think? Can it cheat?
As children develop, Turkle argues, their engagement with computers turns from metaphysics to the challenge of mastery. She explores two practices through which children develop this mastery, gaming and programming. The psychology of computer gaming as Turkle presents it is one of control, of understanding the rules of a system and thus mastering it. For some, though, it’s also a psychology of altered states, of meditative unity with the machine.
The psychology of programming is also one of control, and in this context Turkle develops a taxonomy of soft and hard mastery. It’s here that she draws on gender theory and the history of science, referring specifically to Evelyn Fox Keller’s analysis of the plant geneticist Barbara McClintock as a soft master. Soft mastery, which is often associated with girls in Turkle’s ethnographic experience, is improvisational and involves an association of the self with elements of the software system. Hard mastery, more often associated with boys, focuses on planning, on formal logic, and on the system as an external reality. In either case, some children associate control over their computers with self-control, developing disciplinary practices through their computer use.
(Turkle’s treatment of children as programmers is sadly a product of it’s time, as the presence of programming in grade school curricula now looks like a peculiarity of the 1980s. In the epilogue to the 2004 edition of The Second Self, Turkle makes the incisive observation that when she wrote the book “there seemed to be so much time,” but that “today, the computer culture acts on the individual with new speed and ferocity,” making “computer programming as an intellectual pastime” largely a thing of the past.)
It is hard mastery that is constructive of the hacker culture that Turkle explores in the second part of her book, a male culture of mastery. The theme here is a passion for rules and structure. Hackers like music, but they are indifferent to the facades of performance, properly-tuned instruments and high fidelity stereos. Music becomes structure and composition, like programming an expression of a mastery of form.
The last third of The Second Self is an exploration of artificial intelligence as a new form of philosophy based on hacker ideologies, of the power of the analogy between machine mind and human mind. This part of the book has more in common with the literature it describes—by the likes of Marvin Minsky, Douglas Hofstadter, and John Searle—than with the rest of the book. Ethnography enters into the story less, philosophy of mind more.
Taken as a whole, The Second Self is a far-reaching book that succeeds admirably in describing the psychology of computer programming and developing theoretical tools for exploring the interaction between people and our inventions. Its treatment of child development has stood up remarkably well over the 25 years since it was published, and while the adult cultures Turkle describes have changed in the interim, her psychological conclusions still hold water.