Sherry Turkle: The Right Time and Place

Sherry Turkle’s just-published bildungsroman-like memoir demonstrates her knack of being in the right place at the right time. Taking a year off college, she landed at Sciences Po in fall 1968, the best place imaginable to study “les evenements de Mai 1968.” A few years later she was having personal tutorials with Jacques Lacan just as interest in him in North America was peaking. She took her first academic position in 1975 at MIT’s Science, Technology, and Society Program, and at the dawn of the information age was asking how computers would affect our relationships with other people.

The Empathy Diaries dominated my weekend, pushing aside the Sunday New York Times (but not a run on Saturday and a walk on Sunday). Turkle’s writing flows limpidly, whether about her family life, academe, or complex ideas. She has a fascinating story to tell and she tells it brilliantly.

An Insider Reading

On one level, I read this book as an insider. I was in the Harvard Social Studies Program two years after Turkle. I don’t think I ever met her as a student but I was one degree of separation from her through Martin Peretz and Amy Gutmann.

Like her, I found the Social Studies sophomore tutorial – reading great books of nineteenth and twentieth century social science – a formative experience, though it didn’t lead me to her position of methodological pluralism, but rather to ranking the greats, with Weber and Freud far out-ranking Marx.

Having spent my own life in academe, I’m familiar with the proceduralism of tenure review, with the heavy weight of institutional or departmental academic cultures, and with people who, like Turkle’s first husband the eminent computer scientist Seymour Papert, believe that their intellectual superiority gives them license to use, abuse, ignore, and insult those in their orbit and ambit.

A Broader Reading

It would be a shame if The Empathy Diaries were read only by academic insiders because it has much that will move and inspire readers approaching it from a variety of perspectives. Turkle’s family of origin is both strong and dysfunctional, and she has to negotiate and come to terms with it. This process extends well into her twenties when she resumes contact with her birth father and realizes why her mother fled from him. Turkle arrives at Radcliffe, lacking the privileges of wealth and contacts many of her classmates have, but uses her intelligence and common room street smarts to advance quickly. Knowingly repeating her mother’s mistake, she marries the wrong person, come to terms with her mistake, resets, and moves on. Turkle has lived a fascinating life and I found it deeply moving and thought-provoking to be a part of her audience as she reflects on it.

My co-author (and spouse) Beth Herst and I pointed out the male-domination and indeed sexism inherent in technology origin stories in our book Negotiating Business Narratives. Turkle is one of a group of female thinkers (including Shoshanna Zuboff, Ellen Ullman, and Zeynep Tufekci) who have interrogated the information technology industry on issues of sexism, privacy, and impact on how we relate to other people, the latter Turkle’s forte. This is not to say that the only techno-critics have been female, but rather that, perhaps because tech marginalized women, they responded by becoming its critics.

Whether you approach The Empathy Diaries as an academic insider or as a reader looking for an inspiring bildungsroman-like memoir or enlightenment on the impact of technology on society, you will be moved and provoked.

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