For decades—since the early personal computer movement in the late 1970s— Sherry Turkle, a social scientist and licensed clinical psychologist, has been studying people’s relationships with technology. As a professor at MIT, author of six books and editor of three collections, Turkle has become a leading authority on how our relationship with our gadgets has come to define us. In her new memoir, The Empathy Diaries (Penguin Press), she turns her method of “intimate ethnography,” on her own life.
Here she talks with Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about the intellectual and emotional forces that shaped her into the woman and ground breaking researcher she became.
YZM: In your early childhood, you were raised by a trio of strong Jewish women—your mother, aunt, and grandmother; how did this shape your life?
ST: My mother left my father when I was little more than one and returned to her parents’ home. My aunt Mildred, her sister, was still living with them, as was the custom for single women at that time. There, the influence of these three strong women was very strong because I tried to emulate each of them. My mother was imposing, charismatic, feminine. People were drawn to her energy and warmth. She made every moment count. I don’t have her temperament, but I try to conjure it. My aunt was an intellectual, a traveler, a reader. She never took shortcuts. She taught me to love books and the theater. My grandmother was, in every way, a safe harbor, a listener. I wanted to become a woman with my mother’s zest, my aunt’s curiosity, and my grandmother’s capacity to nurture.
YZM: You’ve also mentioned that you were actually prevented from doing domestic chores and instead encouraged to read—can you say more about the effect that had on you?
ST: Yes, this was my grandmother’s program. Her strategy had mixed results. When I was nineteen, my mother died, and I had to drop out of college. I ended up as a cleaning person for a French bourgeois family in Paris. When they asked me to clean their windows (and no Windex was to be found, the only product I knew that would be used for that job), I called my grandmother who instructed me on how to do the job with vinegar and old newspapers. You put the vinegar on balled up newsprint and rub it onto the window. Then you take fresh newsprint and rub. My grandmother gave me these instructions over a transatlantic telephone call in October 1968. She had gotten it into her head twenty years before that if I didn’t learn to clean, I would never have to clean. Our real lives vaporize our magical thinking.
But the fact that it was everyone’s wish that I neither cook nor clean certainly made me understand how intensely my family believed that I was meant for other things. For my grandmother, I was like the Yeshiva boy reserved for study. More precisely, I think she wanted me to be a next-generation Eleanor Roosevelt, her greatest heroine. There was one thing that my grandmother always made clear: at the earliest sign of fascism in America, I was to rise up, and be part of stamping it out. These days, I often think about my grandmother’s expectations. In post-Trump America, what would Eleanor Roosevelt do?
YZM: What was it like being a young Jewish woman at Radcliffe in the 1960’s?
ST: I can speak about the Jewish women I knew. There were few of us. We were, for the most part, from public schools and on scholarships, and strangers to the manners, clothes, and social expectations of freshman year at an Ivy League College. In that sense, it is hard to sort out how much of my alienation was because of being Jewish and how much came, quite simply, from being poor. Speaking for myself, I was not included in the Harvard “club” system – that seemed reserved for people who had gone to preparatory schools. I spent most of my time with a group of Jewish students who had chosen an academic path. We were mostly from New York and New Jersey. We were intense, aflame with ideas and new political questions. All around me, there seemed to be a buzz of highly desirable social goings-on. Other people’s Harvard. I was so far from it, that I could barely make out what it was, exactly. I remember taking great comfort from the fact that so many of my favorite professors were Jewish, or had Jewish backgrounds. Stanley Hoffman, Marty Peretz, Erik Erikson, Yosef Yerushalmi. Social Harvard might have been easier to navigate if you were a Christian preppy. Academic Harvard, on the other hand, opened itself up to a socially awkward Jewish girl from Brooklyn.
YZM: Let’s talk about that typewriter your grandmother bought you—can expand on the significance of that gift?
ST: I typed my high school papers on a manual typewriter from before the war, but it was heavy and in disrepair. I came to Radcliffe hoping that the college had typewriters to spare. Most of the other girls on my dormitory floor had small, sleek travel-size Olivetti’s. Sometimes, I would ask to borrow these machines, but they were often in use. Usually, I would borrow one of the office machines that Radcliffe kept for students like myself. They were found, often without ribbons, in the “smokers,” the basement or end-of-corridor study rooms.
Days before I was to return to college in September 1967, the fall of my junior year, there was a big box from Macy’s sitting on my grandmother’s kitchen table. My grandfather and aunt circled the table in joy. My grandmother had bought me a taupe Smith Corona portable electric typewriter. It was at the typewriter that I first began to think about the idea of evocative objects, objects that carry meaning far beyond their instrumental value. When I began to use the Smith Corona, I felt the full force of my grandmother’s love. When, after two years at Radcliffe, I had talked with her about waiting in line for the public- use typewriters and borrowing typewriters that belonged to other girls, she had gone to the Macy’s department where I had shopped with her since childhood. The same department where she bought me my first record player, my first album, and my own copy of Little Women. I could feel her wanting me to succeed and not knowing what she could do. And then her pleasure when she found that it was in her power to help.
YZM: Tell us about being a young woman in Paris in 1968.
I was lost – away from home, untethered. I got a job as a cleaning person, except that my employers called me their “Portuguese,” because most of the people in that cleaning job were young Portuguese women. So, I had an experience of being a category of object not a person, an important part of my French lessons.
Paris itself was just emerging from the “events” of May 1968, a time when the old rules no longer made sense and there were no new rules in place. The May uprising and its aftermath seemed a time out of time, what the anthropologist Victor Turner called a “liminal” time. These are periods that allow for creativity and new thinking. I saw the freedom of the “betwixt and between” in Paris. And I saw the power of what anthropologists call “decountrifying,” taking oneself out of one’s normal context in order to see it more clearly. Being out of context in Paris helped me see the French complicity in the Nazi’s treatment of the Jews; it helped me see the ruptures in French society that had led to the violence of 68. And when I returned home, this trick of setting oneself apart helped me see the sexism and racism that had seemed natural at Harvard. Decountrifying works to look at things on a social level. But also, in Paris, I learned to step away from myself.
When I talked to friends, in French, about the ups and downs of my French life, I observed myself, as though at a distance, speaking the French language and somehow seeming braver than I was. I saw myself talking about the adventures of a French-speaking woman who was a part-time student and part-time maid, and who had adopted a swept-back chignon because that kind of hairstyle didn’t have to be washed (or put into curlers!) every night—practical for me since my maid’s room did not have a shower.
I came to think of her as my avatar, French Sherry. She was me, or perhaps a braver incarnation than the Sherry I had left at home. The French language, with its cadences and shrugs, seemed to help her along in the development of a certain insouciance. When I had my down moments—English-speaking Sherry was prone to them—French-speaking Sherry seemed able to summon new resources. This experience of a slight and constructive dissociation from oneself was something I drew on when, in the early 1990s, I first met people constructing selves in cyberspace. I understood when people built online identities that were braver or more adventurous than who they were in “real life.” It helped them use the virtual to enhance their possibilities in the real.
YZM: You visited Germany at a time when many Jews would not have; why did you go and what was that experience like?
ST: In my family, the shadow of the Holocaust hung heavy. Even though our immediate family was safe in Brooklyn, we lost extended family. All the years I was growing up, I remembered my grandparents checking labels to make sure that nothing we bought had any bit of it made in Germany. There was some talk that our German boycott was punishment for Nazi misdeeds, but really, we didn’t buy German goods because for my family, at that time, to bring such things into our home would contaminate it. I didn’t want to live my adult life with that kind of reflexive anger and fear. I wanted to meet German people my age and understand how they were thinking about the war and the future.
Even on my brief trip to Germany in the late summer of 1968, I began to understand something about the fierce confrontation with history that the Germans were attempting. Some Germans my age had left home because their parents and grandparents had been, in their eyes, disgraced. Some had constructed elaborate rituals through which conversations with their elders could begin. Others told me they now believed that during Nazi times their parents had felt too insignificant to confront the horrors of the Third Reich. They had simply tried to wait things out and look after their own families.
Conversations with these young Germans reminded me that when people see their society begin to go mad, individuals feel small and disempowered. Political theorist Hannah Arendt called it the kind of loneliness that made it impossible to see yourself as connected enough to the world to act in the world. Totalitarianism thrives on it.
During the rise of fascism, many Germans and Jews had believed that things would right themselves. But history had taught that when madness descends, no one can sit on the sidelines. In a Cologne coffee shop, I had a halting conversation with a German mathematics student who tried to convince me to spend the year studying in Germany rather than France. I tried to explain that this plan would almost surely mean a break with my family. When I told him we avoided German products, he asked if my aunt bought French perfume. When I said yes, he argued that the embargo should be the other way around. It was the Germans, he said, who were facing what had happened during the war. The French were not speaking about their complicity with fascism. “When your aunt buys French perfume, she supports people who rounded up their Jews to send them to the gas chambers, but have never admitted it happened. The French will not say they had a part. What you don’t admit can’t heal.” As you can see, I have never forgotten that conversation.
YZM: Your childhood was filled with secrets—your parents’ divorce, your mother’s cancer. How did living with those secrets inform the course of the work you’ve gone on to do?
ST: Growing up, I was part of my family but felt that something was off. Silence about my father and my name was taken for granted, but it wasn’t right. So I viewed everything that was there with special attention. I had to go rooting around in musty cupboards to figure out who I might be. Since the rules never seemed natural, I believed things could be another way. I developed an outsider’s clarity. I carried it with me beyond childhood. I was a stranger at Radcliffe, certainly. And in France. I grew into a braver woman, developing strengths through a life lived more as a visitor than as someone who feels at home. I learned that loneliness is not fatal. I found solitude, the kind of being alone that allows you to discover your own company. All of this sustained me at MIT, where my academic work made me something of a killjoy in the American love affair with technology. Engineers are enamored of the “friction-free” because those are the conditions in which objects work best. But it’s a standard that leads to disaster when applied to human relations.
A regime of secrets in childhood taught me to always look for the story hidden by the official storyline. And my regime of secrets taught me this: To see more clearly, make the natural seem foreign. The striking thing about living through dramatic change is you are right there when something that once seemed odd begins to seem natural. The trick is to remember why it once seemed odd because that might be the reason it’s worth remembering.