The Empathy Diaries: A Memoir by Sherry Turkle (Reviewed by Amy Ione)

The Empathy Diaries: A MemoirSherry Turkle’s exemplary research on technology as it relates to humans, personal relationships, and children has provided key insights as the computer has ingrained itself in our world. While her early chronicles on innovative technologies were impressive, I felt that the more important contributions were her insights challenging the unbridled enthusiasm of innovative technologists and how technology often compromised privacy. This memoir—primarily devoted to her childhood. through tenure appointment years (1948-1985) — presents more details related to the person behind early works like The Second Self than the researcher who later pennedLife on the Screen,and Alone Together[1]. That said, the book does cogently capture how Turkle came to the interdisciplinary framework that has often set her apart. Or, as she puts it, “I found my life’s work by navigating as a bricoleur, trying one thing and stepping back, making new connections, and most of all, by listening” (p. 241).

 

The volume is divided into three parts. The first part introduces her from childhood to her early college experience (1948-1968). We discover that while she felt a part of her family as she grew up, she simultaneously developed the sense (and the clarity) of an outsider. Some of this came about because her mother believed that any “reality” could be claimed as real. Turkle therefore had to decipher how her mother was interpreting reality because her mother’s “facts” didn’t always conform with the world Turkle experienced.

By contrast, her biological father’s love of science made it easy for him to lose touch with the human needs of his family. Then, once her parents divorced, her mother’s second marriage created identity problems because her mother wanted Turkle to use her second husband’s last name even before she was legally adopted. The upshot of this was that Turkle grew up with two deep convictions: On the one hand, she felt something was wrong with her because of her name. In addition, she understood that four loving adults— her grandparents, her mother, and her Aunt Mildred— had made her the center of their lives. We also learn she was an exceptional student and intent on going to Radcliffe.

“I was focused on finally leaving home. But I had tried to take what I most admired: my aunt’s intelligence and integrity; my grandmother’s empathy and resourcefulness; my grandfather’s tenacity. As for my mother, I wanted her capacity for joy in small things, the energy she brought to every moment.” (p. 77)

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Book Review: Amy Ione reviews A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age

Review of  A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman

Reviewed by Amy Ione, posted in Leonardo Reviews,August 2017
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As a fan of biographies, I was excited to learn about A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age. Not only is it a timely biography, this well researched and easy to read book also captures the imagination. Because Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman take care to situate Shannon’s contributions in their cultural context the volume encourages the reader to explore their broader implications. Claude Shannon’s legacy is no doubt of particular interest to Leonardo readers due to the range of his work. If Shannon’s training and conception of Information Theory brings the current elevation of STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) to mind, many of his lesser known projects clearly align with projects associated with the STE(A)M (the inclusion of Art) community, although the authors never speak of STEAM per se. These include the playful spirit evident in his ongoing tinkering with electronic toys, his multi-faceted studies of juggling, and his unicycle experiments.

So, who was Claude Shannon? Born in 1916 in Michigan, by all accounts Shannon had an ordinary childhood. Noteworthy traits included a love of math and science, a dislike of facts, and mechanical inclinations. These proclivities led him to purse a dual degree in mathematics and engineering at the University of Michigan. After Michigan, Shannon was hired by the well-connected Vannevar Bush, then at MIT and later founder of the National Science Foundation (NSF), to help with his differential analyzer. This was a mechanical analog computer that depended on combinations of equivalent equations, using a wheel-and-disc mechanism for computation. A major problem was that the equations needed to be reconstructed for every problem, in effect annihilating the very efficiency the machine was intending to add to problem solving. The resounding question was how could it reassemble itself on the fly? Shannon, who was conversant with both symbolic logic and electrical circuitry, produced a landmark master’s thesis with an innovative solution. Titled “A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits,” the young Shannon tied Boolean logic and circuitry together, conceptualizing a path where 1’s and 0’s could represent logical operators of Boole’s (AND, OR, NOT) system, with an on switch standing for “true” and an off switch for “false.”

After a brief stint at the Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton, New Jersey) Shannon joined Bell Labs to work on World War II projects. Here he found an environment that fostered cutting-edge discovery and even met a visiting Alan Turing, another key figure of the Information Age. The sections discussing the shared interests of Shannon and Turing are among the book’s high points, particularly in light of the role of computers in contemporary life. Both probed machine intelligence, feedback and programming commands, and cryptology. The authors tell us that, according to Shannon, much was also left unsaid between them. He did discuss his notions about Information Theory with Turing, but they needed to avoid cryptography because of security concerns.

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