Today, we discover a magnifying mirror. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
I didn't read Sherry
Turkle's book, The Second Self, when
it first came out. Now that I have, I'm startled.
The Second Self is Turkle's name for
the computer. I bought my first PC the year she
finished her book -- 1983. And I read myself in her
She begins on a beach with a group of children
playing tic-tac-toe on a hand-held computer. They
learn to beat the machine most of the time. But the
game has some unpredictability programmed into it.
The children argue whether the computer is a living
thing -- a self apart. One child claims that it
Next Turkle watches teen-agers play Pac-Man. Most
people think that's vapid escapism. She doesn't
agree. Pac-man is rich in strategy. She sees total
mental engagement with a machine.
Finally, she talks with computer hackers -- the new
20th-century isolates. They feel despised by the
world, but within the circuits they are strong and
effective. One uses a poem to tell how his identity
interweaves with the computer. He says,
Turkle notices that the only art a
hacker embraces is music. The only music is baroque.
He listens, not to the sound of music, but to its
structure. It's not in the sensate world, but in the
detached purity of the machine, that he has -- at
last -- found himself.
I control you
You're inside me.
But Turkle is no more ready to write the hacker off
as a flawed personality than she was the Pac-Man
player. She says,
The Romantics wanted to escape rationalist
egoism by becoming one with nature. The hackers
find soul in the machine.
PCs reflect a glint of the hacker's
personality that lives in you and me. The PC is an
expanded second self that empowers us as it reshapes
We join with our computers in a cool intimacy. The
computer role-models a gentle response. It's
patient with our errors. We soon learn the folly of
impatience with its obtuseness. We learn better how
to face a friend's anger or an enemy's
blandishments. Working with the computer, we
replace heat with calm. We learn quiet -- and a new
grammar of forgiveness.
Most startling in Turkle's reading of things is
that she correctly read the computer's role as
anti-rationalist. It's no HAL-2001 at all. It's a
gentle mirror of our own subjective minds. In that
sense our computers really are sentient. They are
us -- reconstituted, made reasonable, made strong,
Turkle saw it coming. The computer helps us
rediscover our humanity. We'll have to reclaim some
of that lost heat one day. But, for a while, we can
all use the calm those machines instill.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds