Identity in the Age of the Internet

by Sherry Turkle
Simon and Schuster, 1995
ISBN 0-684-80353-4; $25.00; 347 pages

Reviewed by:

Cynthia Haynes, Ph.D.
The University of Texas at Dallas
School of Arts and Humanities
PO Box 830688-Mail Station JO31
Richardson, Texas 75083-0688
972-883-6340, 972-883-2989 (FAX)


Teaching writing has never been more exciting as Internet-based computer classrooms enable us to change the faces of our pedagogies, while at the same time casting our students' and our own identities headfirst into the fluid stream of digitized worlds. Writing instruction has taken a giant evolutionary step onto a landscape where amphibious cultures keep one foot in the Real world and one foot in the Virtual world. Among the many learning environments in which students discover new forms of writing and new ways to interact, virtual communities like those described in Sherry Turkle's Life on the Screen are challenging teachers to learn more about these worlds in order to stay in step with the globalization, democratization, and demystification of knowledge that students face both in and out of higher education. This review aims to explore how Turkle's fascinating technosocial research takes the complexities of our digital era "to the streets" with a balanced perspective that makes other extreme treatments of digital cybercultures (both technophobic and technomanic) pale in comparison.

At the heart of Turkle's argument is an in-depth examination of how technology (specifically computers, computer interfaces, and online communities) disrupts our modernist assumptions about identity and the 'Self,' a continuation of the groundbreaking research in her first book, The Second Self (Simon & Schuster, 1984). Turkle succeeds in negotiating through complex contexts for the Self by drawing on resources and research in psychology, sociology, psychoanalysis, and philosophy (among others). The book is organized well as Turkle navigates (and transgresses) the murky theoretical waters of aesthetics, artificial intelligence, and virtuality and the effects each paradigm has on identity. Moving from the broadest assumptions of a modernist aesthetic view of a core (centered) Self to the more fragmented, yet fluid, postmodern view of fragmented (decentered) Selves, her research resonates with similar arguments in our own fields of rhetoric, composition, and electronic pedagogy.

Lester Faigley's Fragments of Rationality and Richard Lanham's The Electronic Word represent just two recent examinations of similar issues that have sparked much debate among compositionists about identity and the intimate relation it maintains with writing. In her first section, "The Seduction of the Interface," Turkle sets up a familiar dichotomy in order to distinguish for her readers how identity issues online differ from traditional f2f (face-to-face). Like Lanham, Turkle ascribes much of the new identity to a shift from a modernist aesthetic to a postmodernist aesthetic, though Lanham uses the rhetorical and philosophical opposition as his hermeneutic framework. And like Faigley (who meticulously traces the effects of postmodernism on composition theory and pedagogy), Turkle deftly and thoroughly historicizes the relations we have to our computers and to those we meet through them in the next section, "Of Dreams and Beasts." Finally, she brings all of this research to bear on computer-mediated identity relations (playful and serious, ethical and political) in "On the Internet."

Life on the Screen is not a book for the techno-faint-of-heart. It will confirm some of our administrators' worst nightmares about the Internet, and it spins the kind of tales that could spark what Turkle calls "parental panic." It does, however, render identity in the age of the Internet one of the most significant conceptual sites of struggle in our eternal wrestling with the narcissistic (and existential) question in us all--who do we see "as we catch sight of our images in the mirror of the machine." Turkle portrays the question in all its stark contrasts, from inside our deepest fears, and with a most compelling curiousity, and her answers point us to a startling conclusion--Life is also "on the screen."

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