A Sherry Turkle Whitman’s Sampler

I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a total fan girl for Sherry Turkle, Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT.  Lately, I’ve been saying that I’m more of an “early” Turkle fan, since I adore The Second Self (1984) and haven’t yet gotten around to Alone Together (2011) (though I did see her appearance on The Colbert Report.  Who knows, maybe one day I’ll be one of those scholars promoting my book while playing it smart and cool on The Daily Show.)

Having had a major paradigm shift related to reading her Falling for Science: Objects in Mind (2008) over this past winter break, I decided this summer to read another of her edited volumes from the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, Evocative Objects: Things We Think With (2007a), as well as some of assorted essays of hers related to children and technology (Turkle, 2006, 2007b, 2010).

For Evocative Objects, Turkle asked contributors (scholars in the humanities, sciences, art, and engineering) to select a meaningful object from their life (e.g., a vacuum cleaner, comic books, a 1964 Ford Falcon) which connected their daily life with their intellectual pursuits.  Turkle asked all to ruminate on the questions that these objects in particular make askable about their past, present, and futures.

Turkle then paired each essay with an anchoring excerpt from a canonical text, the likes of Derrida, Lévi-Strauss, and Eco.  She catalogs these personal essays along six themes: objects of (1) design and play, (2) discipline and desire, (3) history & exchange, (4) transition and passage, (5) mourning and memory, (6) mediation and new vision.

A great deal of Turkle’s past work has been an investigation into the relationships people, from children to the elderly, form with digital creatures such as Furbies, Tamagotchis, and My Real Babies (Turkle, 2007b).  She finds that while these objects are designed to be nurtured, they also promote a fantasy of reciprocation that is never fulfilled.  One of my favorite parts of The Second Self is Turkle’s description of how in the 1980s, all first generation Speak and Spell toys had a bug, which led to the toy uncontrollably speaking and spelling in an off-kilter way.  After observing children experience this bug (I owned the toy as a child can attest to being both disturbed and intrigued by my own toy “coming to life”), she concluded that in their relationship with this evocative object, children had a small metaphysical crisis about life and death.  People – adults and children alike – connect with technological systems in ways that scientists and engineers cannot plan for.  We use the microworld to work through human feelings and issues that may have nothing to do with the computer “guts” per say.

Turkle concludes her introduction to Evocative Objects with the following quote from Walt Whitman:

A child went forth everyday/and the first object he look’d upon, that object he became.

Turkle draws a parallel between the boy in the poem and the authors of the essays in Evocative Objects, who “show us what they looked upon and what became the things that mattered” (Turkle, 2007a, p. 10).  This blog’s theme of “children’s bonding with technology” in terms of identity and embodiment is evident.  Yet, I’d like to complicate the parallel Turkle makes, and problematize the quote as missing the element of children’s agency.  Maybe not the first or second object she look’d upon, for they did not suit her needs, but the third object she actively chose to become.  Or, the first object she look’d upon, that object she already was (a major theme of Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, which I hope to actually finish this summer.  Or a more pop culture example, consider the items that make Harry Potter so salient – the sorting hat, the wand, horcruxes – items with a certain cyborg quality of blurred boundaries between body and object).  Or a child might go forth everyday, and look upon the same object each time, comforted and empowered by routine, a fluidity between the child becoming that object/the object becoming that child.

The items featured in Evocative Objects are a mix of organic and synthetic.  Two of the essays I found most compelling were the one on knots, by Carol Strohecker, Director of the Center of Design Innovation at UNC, and the one on stars, by Mitch Resnick, LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research and head of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab.

Both essays highlight how children negotiate the relationships between the presence and absence of objects.  Resnick obsesses less over the stars themselves, and more over the blackness surrounding them.  Strohecker tells the story of a young girl in the “Knot Lab” she teaches, working through her parents’ divorce via an art project consisting of a “True Lovers’ Knot,” a knot whose completed state involves suspended motion between two oppositional anchors.  This sort of object play manipulates physical space and mental space; positive space and negative space; cognitive knots and the holes that redefine “rope” as “knots.”  The paradoxical forces in math and physics can be tremendously counterintuitive to children.  For example, think back to our younger selves’ amused experimentation with pulling down, up, down for the window blinds to go up, down, up.  iPads may be praised as being “intuitive” interfaces for young children, but what are the benefits of developing an intuitive curiosity for that which is inherently counterintuitive?

Ultimately, Turkle contends that objects are evocative when they “bring philosophy down to earth” (Turkle, 2007, p. 308).  As a researcher, I am grounded in a belief in the symbolic, haptic, and emotional potential for children’s technologic play, with both analog and digital objects.  Loris Malaguzzi, guiding force behind the Reggio Emilia early childhood education movement, viewed technological play and computer literacy as another form of “the hundred languages of children,” referring to it as “the meeting of two ‘intelligences’ that need to get to know each other.” He saw potential in “the existence of a plurality of symbolic signs of communication to which one can respond using appropriate codes”; “the pleasurable sensation of touching the keyboard in order to enter into a working relationship with the machine”; and “the growth of an awareness that is gratified by active participation and the achievement of results” (Malaguzzi, 1996).

the mobius strip bagel. equally good to think with as it is to eat. courtesy of geekologie.com.

Going back to the knots as “things to think with,” when I wrap my hands with the theories and literature of my early doctoral degree experience, I often get tangled, untie myself, and start over.  Critical cultural theorist Donna Haraway (1994, p. 65) has written of her own interdisciplinary style as a game of Cat’s Cradle: “My intention is that readers will pick up the patterns, remember what others have learned how to do, invent promising knots, and suggest other figures that will make us swerve from the established disorder of finished, deadly worlds.”  I aspire to this type of dialogue, of passing the string back and forth with a real readership.  I am contented though by knowing that there is no end to reach in my education (nor in the piles of reading).  Like the continuous loop one weaves their hands through in Cat’s Cradle, I am on a mobius strip of lifelong learning.

References

Haraway, D. J. (1994). A game of cat’s cradle: Science studies, feminist theory, cultural studies. Configurations, 2(1), 59-71.

Malaguzzi, L. (1996). A heresy of light and color. In Municipality of Reggio Emilia Infant-Toddler Centers and Preschools (Ed.), The hundred languages of children: Narrative of the possible. Reggio Emilia, Italy: Assessorato Scuole Infanzia Asili Nido.

Turkle, S. (2006). Tethering. In C. A. Jones (Ed.), Sensorium: Embodied experience, technology, and contemporary art (pp. 220-226). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Turkle, S. (Ed.) (2007a). Evocative objects: Things we think with. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Turkle, S. (2007b). Authenticity in the age of digital companions. Interaction Studies, 8(3), 501-517.

Turkle, S. (2010). Object lessons. In M. M. Suárez-Orozco and C. Sattin-Bajaj (Eds.) Educating the whole child for the whole world. New York: New York University Press.

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