This is a reprint of an article I originally wrote in 1997 for my protoblog/e-mail newsletter, Culture in Cyberspace. There is one Google-findable copy still on the net as of 1/22/2001; thank you driftline.org for keeping the University of Virgina Spoon Collective avant-garde e-mail list archives available all these years later. Life on the Screen was recently published at the time of the writing.
Among the many virtues of Sherry Turkle’s new book Life on the Screen is a most lucid explanation of postmodernism and how it differs from modernism, which has dominated Western culture since the Enlightenment. The heart of modernism is rational, systematic thought. Things consist of layers of depth that can be broken down, explored, understood, and explained. Modernism is driven by rules, procedures, logic, boundaries, and by a clear sense of what is right and what is wrong. Individuals are regarded as “unitary actors” — governed by a single set of ideas, motives, and desires.
As Turkle lays it out, postmodernism suggests the world is actually too complex and messy for us to understand. Our attempts to establish rules based on truths are ultimately futile because people and their perceptions of reality resist reduction. Life and its experiences are in the end opaque, mysterious, and open to endless interpretation. Individuals are not unitary actors but are “decentered” and capable of many different combinations of feelings and motivations. The self is multiple, fluid, nonlinear, even fragmented. How we present ourselves is merely an artificial social construct — a story subject to revision. From this point of view, the best way to deal with the world is by interacting with surfaces, reacting to how things look or feel at a point in time to achieve something that is neither right or wrong but reflects a unique perception.
Computers, the product of logical, rule-driven thought, ironically have become tools for reaching beyond our rational notions of reality. This reach is possible through interacting with text, icons, and other virtual “surfaces” offered by the computer, which for more and more users (this one included) works in opaque, mysterious ways. Moreover, when communicating with others via the computer, one is much freer to present different aspects of the self than in real life. As The New Yorker cartoon put it, on the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog.
Turkle observes that the computer has brought postmodernism down to Earth. I cannot claim to have done all her arguments justice here, but it is clear she provides a compelling notion of how computers might change our interactions with the world and with one another. On a more practical level, postmodern ideas also help explain the phenomenon of the web and how culture is depicted through it. Old ideas about “passive perfection” — books, paintings, sculpture, and other art forms — are challenged by the ability people have via the web to explore, rearrange, and reinterpret cultural representations. The extent to which this ability will move us away from rational modernism remains to be seen.