Computational Consciousness

Patrick Nagle, English 65, The Cyborg Self, Brown University (Fall 2006)

Sherry Turkle's analysis of children's interactions with computer games and her own experiences in MUDs (Multiple User Domains) show how these technologies are constitutive of subjectivity, providing frameworks for understanding the self and ideas of aliveness:

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, I was first exposed to notions that linked identity and multiplicity. My introduction to these ideas, most notably that there is no such thing as "the ego" — that each of us is a multiplicity of parts, fragments, and desiring connections — took place in the intellectual hothouse of Paris; they presented the world according to such authors as Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze, and Fˇlix Guattari. But despite such ideal conditions for absorbing theory, for me, the "French lessons" remained merely abstract exercises. These theorists of poststructuralism, and what would come to be called postmodernism, spoke words that addressed the relationship between mind and body but from my point of view had little to do with my own. (545)

When twenty years later, I used my personal computer and modem to join on-line communities, I experienced my French lesions in action, their theories brought almost shockingly down to earth. In virtual communities I used language to create several characters (some of my biological gender, others not of my biological gender). My textual actions were my actions — my words made things happen. In different communities I had different routines, different friends, different names. And different on-line personae were expressing different aspects of my self. In this context, the notion of a decentered identity was concretized by experiences on a computer screen. (545)

Turkle's experience in MUDs is a direct example of Baudrillard's concept of simulation and begs comparison to views of hypertext's formation of the subject. She continues, explaining the effects of computer technology on chidren's theories of aliveness:

Piagetian] order to the breaking point. Children still try to impose strategies and categories, but they do so in the manner of theoretical bricoleurs, or tinkerers, making do with whatever materials are at hand, making do with whatever theory can fit a prevailing circumstance. When children confront these new objects and try to construct a theory about what is alive, we see them cycling through theories of "aliveness." (550)

I observe a group of seven year olds playing with a set of plastic transformer toys that can take the shape of armored tanks, robots, or people. The transformers can also be put into intermediate states so that a "robot" arm can protrude from a human form or a human leg from a mechanical tank. Two of the children are playing with the toys in intermediate states (that is, in states somewhere between being people, machines, and robots). A third child insists that this is not right. The toys, he says, should not be placed in hybrid states. "You should play with them as all tanks or all people." He is getting upset because the other two children are making a point of ingoring him. An eight-year-old girl comforts the upset child. "It's okay to play with them when they are in-between. It's all the same stuff," she said, "just yucky computer 'cy-dough-plasm.'" This comment is the expression of a cyborg consciousness as it expresses itself among today's children: a tendency to see computer systems as "sort of" alive, to fluidly cycle through various explanatory concepts, and to willingly transgress boundaries. (552)


Works Cited

Last modified 18 December 2006