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: The Technical Delusion: Electronics, Power, Insanity by Jeffrey Sconce

Reviewed by Amy Ione.   

The Technical Delusion: Electronics, Power, Insanity by Jeffrey Sconce is a robust and multidimensional reminder of the complexity of human consciousness. Moving from Enlightenment studies of electricity and human anatomy to our 21st century digitally-connected globe, this interdisciplinary study asserts that delusions of electronic persecution have been a preeminent symptom of psychosis for over 200 years. One impressive feature of the study is how deftly Sconce weaves together case studies, literary source material, court cases, and popular media. Through this material he argues that we are moving toward an increasingly psychotic reality in which data practices will produce a world in which thought, reflection, and doubt will be disrupted by the very structures humans are putting in place. In his view, the current melding of big data and political power is creating a situation in which it is becoming more difficult to isolate precisely how (or perhaps where) bodies, the mind, electronics, and information intersect. He draws a parallel between psychotic disembodiment and electronic simulations:

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Headhunters: The Search for a Science of the Mind (Book Review)

Headhunters: The Search for a Science of the Mind
by Ben Shephard

Reviewed by Amy Ione

Headhunters: The Search for a Science of the Mind traces a slice of history that in turn introduces us to some of those drawn to study human psychology and mental health a few decades after Darwin’s theory of evolution took root. Four of these pioneers are the focus of this book: William Rivers, Grafton Elliot Smith, Charles Myers, and William McDougall. They met at Cambridge in the 1890s and Shephard links their lives more broadly through their efforts to study the brain as biological approaches were gaining increased leverage due to Darwin’s work. The author begins the book by placing us in that context:

“How, then, did the human brain evolve? Why did it evolve as it did? In the 1870s, modern experimental neuroscience began, using electricity to stimulate the nervous system of animals and microscopes to observe the nerve cells of humans. Within two decades, researchers had established the location of functions within the brain, unraveled the way that the nervous system automatically governs the body’s functions, and begun to discover how messages are sent between neurons and synapses. But these extraordinary advances only posed further questions — about human behavior; man’s relations to his fellow primates, and the human occupation of the earth. A generation of scientists went looking for answers” (p. 1).

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