Computing: An Opening

Sherry Turkle, The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit (1984)

Children use the computer in their process of world and identity construction. They use it for the development of fundamental conceptual categories, as a medium for the practice of mastery, and as a malleable material for helping forge their sense of themselves. The computer is a particularly rich and varied tool for serving so wide a range of purposes. It enters into children’s process of becoming and into the development of their personalities and ways of looking at the world. It finds many points of attachment with the process of growing up. Children in a computer culture are touched by technology in ways that set them apart from the generations that have come before. Adults are more settled. In the worst of cases, they are locked into roles, afraid of the new, and protective of the familiar. Even when they are open to change, established ways of thinking act as a braking force on the continual questioning so characteristic of children. Family and work responsibilities and the very real constraints of social class can make it too risky to cast doubt on certainties. But there are events and objects that cause the taken-for-granted to be wrestled with anew. The computer is one of these provocations to reflection. Among a wide range of adults, getting involved with computers opens up long-closed questions. It can stimulate them to reconsider ideas about themselves and can provide a basis for thinking about large and puzzling philosophical issues.

(Opening to chapter entitled “Personal Computers with Personal Meaning”, 165)

We already have the first generations in which there is no “getting involved with computers,” in which everyone is always already involved with them. Turkle was writing at a moment in history when, for her place and social milieu, the personal computer was becoming for the first time a realistic possession (and aspiration). In this period, which appears to have been far more self-aware about arriving at computing than the present moment, she writes that the computer was experienced as a tool of freedom, a liberation for the imagination.

It strikes me that, for all the ways in which many people recognize that computers have become a necessary utility–everyone must learn to use them, perhaps will learn to use them without realizing it–the ethical language around computing has flipped. Yes computing skills are in-demand, you can do well in material terms by getting good at them. But the term “algorithm,” by which is usually meant an instance of computer logic, covers so many ways in which computers are understood to limit freedom. Surveillance, profiling, control, manipulation: this is the activity that accompanies computing in the present.

Tags computing beginning freedom