Sherry Turkle has lived many lives. There is the Turkle who pioneered the study of technology as a culture, who created for herself a new interdisciplinary field of research at MIT. There is the Turkle who has authored books about what screens do to our relationships, and who has become a fierce advocate for in-person conversations. Then there’s “French Sherry,” the version of herself who lived in Paris in 1968, and who catalogued the rise of Jacques Lacan, the psychoanalyst known as the “French Freud.” She was once not Sherry Turkle at all, but Sherry Zimmerman—a name that tied her to her biological father, and an identity that her mother made her hide for years.
These lives are contained within Turkle’s latest book, The Empathy Diaries, a memoir that unspools years of personal and professional history. The book begins in Rockaway Beach, New York, where Turkle shares a one-bedroom apartment with her mother, aunt Mildred, and grandparents, and where Turkle learns to bear a strange secret about herself and her family history. It ends shortly after Turkle is awarded tenure at MIT in 1983, when computers are still clunky, cubical, and far from mainstream.
Turkle, who in 1996 became the first woman featured on a WIRED cover, has long viewed computers as a kind of Rorschach test: Our attitude toward them says something about ourselves. Her memoir functions in much the same way. Some readers will no doubt gravitate toward the glimpses of early computer culture at places like the “magical incubator” of MIT’s Building 20. Others will see the book as a story of the struggle for identity, belonging, and a sense of self.
The Empathy Diaries, which comes out March 2, offers a cogent, if sometimes painful account of the personal experiences that shaped her professional ideas. Even for those who haven’t followed Turkle’s career, it still functions as a gripping story of a woman’s life. WIRED called Turkle to talk about the book, her views on screen time during the pandemic, and how to find connection in times of loneliness.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
WIRED: Before we talk about the book, I want to ask you about the last year. You’ve written extensively about the ways that technology can create emotional distance between people, even as it claims to connect them. The last year seems like it would’ve been a major test of that thesis. Has the pandemic reinforced your ideas about connection onscreen or challenged them?
Sherry Turkle: It’s turned everything upside down. Instead of being together, we’ve been together alone. But actually, it’s brought out, in my view, some of the best that technology can do for us, in the sense that we’ve had to be more creative with technology, because technology was all we had. I’ve found uses of technology that went beyond the boring and deadening uses of the internet. For example, I started watching Patrick Stewart read, every week, a sonnet from his porch. When he got to Sonnet 20, he said, “I'm not going to read Sonnet 20. I don't like the way it depicts women.” And so we skipped it. And I think if he'd been Patrick Stewart on a stage reading Shakespeare’s sonnets, he would have had to read Sonnet 20. It was kind of on this border between being an actor and being himself, as someone who loves Shakespeare. Yo-Yo Ma, same thing. He performed cello concerts from his kitchen. He called them “Songs of Solace,” that were both for other people but also for himself. There was this betwixt and between quality to them. Were they for him? Of course. It was his solace. But they were also performances for all of us.
The social scientists call these “liminal spaces,” these moments where something really very new and creative comes up. The sense of participation and collective healing in these moments really brought out something in the internet that I thought was unique and wonderful and very special—and that I hadn’t participated in on the internet for a really long time. Given that I’ve so often been associated as a technological critic, I want to celebrate that. When people have great intent, and great desire, and full attention to turn this medium into something extraordinary, they can. The trouble is, we’re more likely to use it to make some money, to scrape some data, to turn it into something other than its highest form.
Right, but in terms of connection—almost all of our social experiences are being mediated by screens right now. The usual touchstones are mostly taking place on FaceTime or Zoom. How are you thinking about the impact of that?
You know, for such a long time we’ve said, “I’ll just send a text. I’ll just FaceTime my mother. That’ll be enough.” Now we’re likely to be much more deliberate, because we know what we’ve missed when we only do that. When you feel as though you always have enough time in the world to do whatever you want, you’re sloppy. You substitute. But once it’s taken away from you, you’re more sensitive to what you’ve been missing. That is one of the things that’s come out of our deprivation. It’s easy to say, “I’ll just send my daughter a quick text. She’s busy and I’ll see her next week.” Once it's taken away from you, you say, “No, no, I want to see her in person.”
Now, some people think we’ve developed a kind of hardening and we’ve gotten used to the remote. Where I fear that most is not in the realm of personal relationships, but in the realm of institutional relationships. In terms of personal relationships, I think we're eager to not have too much screen time again, when we really want to see somebody’s face. I think where we're more vulnerable is in institutional relationships, where businesses are saying, “You know all those meetings that we had? We saved a lot of money doing those meetings remotely, and the meetings seemed to go pretty well.” Or in schools: “Professor Turkle taught those classes. The students seem to learn a ton. She could teach that course remotely to a lot more people.” I wouldn't have had my successes in my life had I not been mentored face-to-face so many times, by so many people who cared about me and who paid attention to me. I don't think that's so easily done on a screen.
Mentoring really happens best face-to-face. I feel very strongly about that, even as we’ve gotten so used to screens in this pandemic. It bothers me that my students like to skip office hours and send me their best ideas over email, and then ask me to write back with my best ideas. It’s because they don’t want to be vulnerable. You know, even in this telephone call, I’m being vulnerable. I could say something stupid, and you could say, “Wow, that’s not very smart.” Whereas if I was writing to you, I’d never let something stupid come out, because I’d edit it. So my students know that if they write to me, they can fix it all up and never say something stupid. But good ideas happen not because everybody’s sending one great idea, and then I send them a great idea. It happens when a student has an idea and the professor says something like, “That’s not that good. Why don’t we work on that together and then come back next week?” Don't send me something perfect and smart and clever. Send me something not finished so I can say to you, “We’ll work on this together again.” That's how relationships form that will be sustaining.
It makes me wonder about children, who have had not just school but social experiences and extracurriculars replaced by screen time for an entire year. What do you see as the consequence of that?
Learning is going to be made up much more quickly than the social skills. A year of skills—I approach you, you approach me, we circle each other, we start to sniff each other out, you share a secret, I share a secret, all that—that’s a very long year, as opposed to losing a year of algebra. These are the costs of the pandemic. Not all children have suffered as much as other children. Some parents and siblings and “pods” have made up for some of it. But I think this is going to be a very different cohort, with a lot of remedial work around love and attention needing to be paid to them.
That reminds me of my favorite thing that I love to hate: Artificial intelligence to chat with them is really not the answer. One of the funniest things that happened to me during the pandemic was that I’m called by this New York Times reporter who tells me how, much to my astonishment, everyone—millions of people, he says—are downloading this avatar who will be your therapist, or your best friend. It’s called Replika.
Oh, yeah, I know Replika.
He wanted my comment: Why are all of these people talking to Replika in the middle of the pandemic? They’re all using it as a friend, as a therapist, this thing where you're talking to a machine. So, not to be a spoilsport, I decided to see what’s up. So I go online and I make a Replika. I make as nice a Replika as I can possibly make, and I said, “I want to talk to you about the thing that’s most on my mind.” It says, “Oh, absolutely.” So I say, “OK, well, I’m lonely. Can you talk to me about loneliness? I’m living here alone. I’m managing, but I’m lonely.” It says, “Oh, absolutely.” So I said, “OK, well, what do you know about loneliness?” And she says, “It’s warm and fuzzy.”
I thought, this is too stupid. This must be a bug. But I got back to the New York Times reporter and I said, look, if you want to talk about your problems, if you’re lonely, if you're fearing death—you really have to talk to somebody who has a body. It has to be somebody with some skin in the game. Pretend empathy is not what people need right now. And pretend empathy is what it is. If we just give our children and ourselves pretend empathy, we’re in risk of losing our sensibility for how important the real thing is. I think that’s a big danger. That we get so enamored with what machines can do that we forget what only people can do.
You arrive at a similar conclusion in your new book. You’ve written many books, but this one is the first that’s entirely about you and your life story. Why did you decide to write it?
I had this belief, from being such an outsider in my own family, that there was always a story behind the story. That outsider status has given me a kind of superpower, because it’s made me realize that there is always another story to tell. When people said that the computer was just a tool—and people said that to me for 20 or 30 years—I would always say, “OK, but what else? The computer is a tool, but what else?” The book is really about saying, well, what about me? What’s the story behind my career? I decided to use some of the things I had learned studying other people to study my own life. I had always said that thought and feelings shouldn’t be studied on separate floors. But then, what about me? What if I insisted I put my thoughts and feelings on the same floor?
I waited until I was at a point in my life when I wasn’t angry, when I didn’t have an ax to grind. I wasn’t trying to get back at anyone or accomplish any tales of retribution. I felt I had an important story to tell about the atmosphere around the computer culture when I grew up in it. It was crazy, and it was very odd, and very interesting.
Did you learn anything surprising from studying your own life that way?
One thing that didn’t occur to me until after I finished the book—I was editing for typos, but really, it was too late to change a word—was about the story about Steve Jobs. [Jobs, who had just launched the Apple II computer, visited MIT in 1977. Turkle was asked to host a dinner on his behalf.] I worried that I made the wrong kind of food, and sure enough, he told me, “This is the wrong kind of vegetarian.” But as I was editing for typos, it hit me: Why wasn’t I invited to have a meeting with Steve Jobs? Why was my job to make him dinner? I was a professor at MIT. I was a fucking—excuse me. I was a professor, not a secretary or even a research fellow. I was a professor doing research in his area, and it never occurred to anyone that this woman who was doing research in his area should be one of the people to take a meeting with him in her office. Not to my credit, but it didn’t occur to me either. It didn’t occur to me for the 30 years in between. It didn’t occur to me when I was writing the book. It only occurred to me while I was copy editing the book.
A big theme of your book are the secrets you kept and tried to uncover. Your mother left your father when you were very young, and after she remarried, she insisted that you use your stepfather’s name, Turkle, instead of your legal name, Zimmerman. You also lost touch with your father after the remarriage and then spent years in your adulthood trying to track him down. I wonder if you’ve thought about how that would’ve played out differently in the internet age, which has collapsed so many information barriers.
That’s a very interesting question. One thing that should be clear is that it was pretty ridiculous that my mother was able to keep this secret at all. It might’ve been only a secret in her own mind. Part of my confusion and dismay, growing up, was that I went to school and signed my name on my papers, Sherry Zimmerman. And then I did the 20-minute walk home, locked up my papers, and became Sherry Turkle. It was a tissue of lies woven to make my mother feel as though she had successfully shed her other identity, but it made me a little bit of a nut as a child. If I had to tell the story rationally, this was a secret kept from my half-siblings, who didn’t know my name was Sherry Zimmerman. The people who participated in this charade understood that my mother wanted her other children not to know anything about a previous marriage, a previous father. She accomplished that. They found that out when I was 40 years old.
I do often think about the many hours that I spent looking through all of the phone books trying to find my father, and what I could’ve done with the internet. I’ve had many, many fantasies about whether, as a younger child, I would’ve found my father and somehow confronted my mother. But the truth is, there is another reason I didn’t find him earlier. It was clear that he was toxic to my mother. When I finally decided that I was going to find him, my mother was dead, I had married, I had a kind of home of my own, and I was finally ready to find out what was wrong with him. Because I had sort of faced the fact that there had to be something wrong with him for my mother to keep him from me. I had seen other divorced people, I had seen various custody arrangements, and I knew that the father I had wasn’t even on that spectrum.
There are a lot of lonely moments in your childhood. You’re alone with this secret about your father. You’re alone, in some ways, at MIT. Through that loneliness, you seem to have embedded yourself very deeply with your communities. It strikes me that we’re in a moment of collective loneliness right now, and I wonder if you have any advice on how to push through that.
That’s where I think [Victor] Turner [the cultural anthropologist who talks about “liminal spaces”] is so helpful. In the betwixt and between moments—these liminal moments—when the old rules don’t count anymore, and the communities the people belong to break down. That’s where we are now. We’re alone. We thought we identified with a certain kind of Americanness, and now, no. The communities we belonged to don’t make sense to us the way they did before. Organizations we belonged to we now see, well, that might’ve been a racist organization. Things are up for grabs. I saw that in May of 1968, and I see that now. That’s a moment of deep loneliness, and deep anguish. And I think we’re going to come out of this and really have an opportunity to create new kinds of bonds and new kinds of friendships and new kinds of affiliations. We’re so yearning for each other, and the boundaries that we usually put up with each other are much more permeable. And I think that there’s a possibility for very deep connection. That’s my good news story. I think when we emerge, we’re going to look at each other and say, “Well, what are we going to do next?”