Professor Straight & the Computational

What I like about Turkle when she’s not having anxiety attacks that we’re only Alone Together is that she asks, at some deeper than usual level that reaches the zone of psychological agency, how people use computational capacities. I suspect that even with the material in that latest book of hers, one could show an alternative response to the material that has made her move closer to the pole of “Professor Straight” than of, say, “DJ Spooky.”

But back here in the material from The Second Self (ah, but only an embryonic “Professor Straight” would be counting, right? otherwise, always already at least two)—we have a lot of interesting ideas as she works on the kinds of (stupid, really) things the Professor Straights of the world are saying about kids and computers.

Which I organize as follows to make a little more clear the implications of what she’s finding when she asks: what do the users think they’re doing? It seems to me they are using technology on themselves or (at least virtually) on the world, and that the way of using she observes bifurcates between escapism and remixing, depending upon whether a person is feeling crushed by the contradictions in the “real virtuality” (Manuel Castells) of our simworld (what Professor Straight would call simply (and perhaps fatuously) “the real world,” or, instead, that person is empowered by the possibility of becoming one with the Technium (Kevin Kelly) and therefore using it in a natively digital way as opposed to the kind of digital tourism we see in the crushed ones.

What am I talking about, that’s your question? Think of the compensatory use of digital gaming, that way of getting a sense of power or agency or potency from playing a game (you get to do online what you can’t do physically), a way of turning on your inner inadequacies and making up for them; Professor Straight worries that losing oneself in game world will be a crime against personal development. The externalization of this is what Professor Straight worries about concerning violence, that players will imitate in real life the violence they engage in online. Both anxieties may have some truth to them: measuring up to performance standards in our world can crush someone internally, just as finding some way to fend off the tyranny of inequality and social immobility can flip one out into violently redirected anger.

But Turkle, in this piece, at least, resists Professor Straight on both counts, preferring instead to foreground those who take up technology in search of a way to remix the self or the world. Remixing programs and other species of IP (intellectual property, corporatists want us to call it) contests the bland closure and stupidly simplistic content of corporate IP-as-anesthesia and remakes cultural material and the life of the mind along far more creative lines than, well, inserting disk and pressing play. And our lawyer who uses absorption in gameplay to develop not the calmness of TM samadhi, but rather the profound intensity of focus that meditators call “Concentration”—here’s a case of remixing the self so that it is not “lost” in the scattered attention and exhausted creativity with the pieces one moves according to the rules of legal machinery. How very Bill-Viola of him?

There you go. When you think of TV as simple spectacle imposing itself on couch potatoes, you miss out on the answers you get when you ask people what use are you making of your TV watching? Professor Straight made tenure writing about how we’re all in a stupor from watching the Dick Van Dyke show; more likely, we’re in a stupor from the deadening routines of work-in-America (if you can still get it); now Professor Straight is making full Professor writing about how kids are losing their agency to escapist fantasy and the world of human interaction to violent exterminations of their world (and themselves). But, as Turkle notes, you get different answers when you ask people what use they’re making of digital technology.

Time for Professor Straight to retire on a buy-out of the deadwood.