Skip to main content
No. 725:
The Second Self

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 words.

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 cheats.

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,

I control you
You're inside me.

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.

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 human consciousness.

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, made good.

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 work.

(Theme music)

Turkle, S., The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984.

My thanks to Judy Myers, UH Library, for calling Turkle's book and its implications to my attention.


Photo by John Lienhard