The Empathy Diaries: A Memoir
I first encountered Sherry Turkle years ago when a colleague in philosophy mentioned her to me as someone to keep an eye on. Later, I received from him a copy of one of her early books, The Second Self. Turkle’s more recent books, Alone Together and Reclaiming Conversation, contain remarkable insights into how technology shapes our relationships with each other and ourselves. I refer to her work in my capstone course, “Perspectives on Computing,” and share with my students a popular TED talk she gave titled, “Connected, but alone?”
As a social scientist working at MIT, Turkle had a front seat observing the development of the personal computer and researching its wider social impacts. As personal computers, the internet, smartphones, and social media unfolded, she was at the forefront of understanding how they not only change our lives, but also how they change the way we see ourselves. In her own words, her mission has been to “study how computers change not only what we do but who we are” (274).
Despite her insights into the lives of people behind the screen, she has not revealed much of her own life. Until now. This book contains many intimate anecdotes about her life and family growing up in a Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York. This autobiography includes recollections of various people in her life, including her estranged birth father, her strained relationship with a stepfather, her doting aunt and grandparents, her peculiar relationship with her mother, and her ill-fated marriage to the famous computer scientist, Seymour Papert. Various intimate moments are recalled as she moves from her modest family home in Brooklyn to studying at Harvard and abroad in France and then working at MIT. Along the way, Turkle connects certain experiences and events with insights that later informed her work. The narrative includes several photographs sprinkled throughout, giving glimpses of her life and family at different stages.
The book opens with her tracking down and meeting her biological father from whom she had long been estranged. Like a mystery novel, this opening encounter leaves the reader with questions that gradually get filled in later. Turkle moves from blaming her mother for isolating her from her father to uncovering why her mother left him.
The book is divided into three parts: her childhood, her university studies at Harvard, and the time of her early work at MIT. Throughout the book, her training as a psychoanalyst occasionally comes to the fore as she analyzes various events in her life and processes her complex relationship with her mother. Her story also provides a firsthand account of some of the unique challenges that women faced in higher education in the late 1960s and into the following years that spanned Turkle’s career. Furthermore, it exposes some of the skepticism that she faced as a social scientist questioning the impact of technology in a context like MIT.
At different points in her life Turkle observes how some of her experiences have influenced her own work. For example, her work on evocative objects was inspired by different objects in her own life. The title of Chapter 2, “Memory Closet,” refers to a cupboard above her grandparent’s kitchen table which contained various objects from the life of her family which she frequently examined for clues about her family’s history (including about her father). Later, she recalls other significant objects in her life, including a Smith Corona typewriter given by her grandmother with which she “felt the full force of my grandmother’s love” (120), as well as her grandmother’s “special occasion dishes” (204). She later observes how the objects in the memory closet helped her to “think things through” (181) about her family and later applies the notion of evocative objects to how people project themselves onto computers (255). In an endnote (356), Turkle directly connects her “memory closet” to three books about evocative objects including Evocative Objects: Things We Think With, Falling for Science: Objects in Mind, and The Inner History of Devices.1
As a computer scientist, it was fascinating to read about her interactions with famous technology personalities like Steve Jobs (who snubbed a vegetarian meal she arranged for him) and famous computer scientists like Marvin Minsky, Joseph Weizenbaum, and Seymour Papert. Turkle was married for a time to Papert, a man twenty years her senior and famous in computing circles for his pioneering work with artificial intelligence and the Logo programming language. Insights about her personal life with the eccentric Papert were fascinating, but also a reminder about how great thinkers can have feet of clay.
I enjoyed reading Turkle’s story, but there were a few places that left me wanting more. The biographical details become thinner for the most recent season of her life, including her second marriage and the birth of a daughter in the 1990s. Instead, the book ends with an epilogue that summarizes some of the themes from her previous books. As a parent, I would be interested in hearing about her experiences integrating theory and practice as she raised a daughter during an era that corresponded with the rise of the internet, the invention of the smartphone, and the growth of social networking. While Turkle describes at length her academic influences (such as French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan), I would have welcomed more reflection from Turkle about her own beliefs and how these have informed her academic work. I have always found echoes of a Judeo-Christian anthropology in her work—an implicit understanding that humans are distinct from machines in their capability for relationship and empathy. For Jews and Christians, this flows from an understanding of human beings as created in the image of God. I was curious to hear more about how growing up in the Jewish faith and attending “Jewish Sunday school” had influenced her thinking (61-62).
Shortly after the release of this book, I had a chance to ask Turkle this question directly. I joined a remote Zoom session where she read from her book and entertained questions. I was given an opportunity by the moderator to ask Turkle a question, and so I inquired about how the Jewish faith has shaped her work and research. In reply, Turkle did not address this directly, but rather recounted fond memories of her Jewish grandfather and celebrating Jewish holidays.
This book is an engaging read for those interested in the backstory of a person who continues to influence the ongoing conversation about how our digital devices shape us. Indeed, my own teaching and writing have benefitted greatly from the work of Sherry Turkle. In general, engineers and computer scientists will do well to heed the insights of wise social scientists who can help us understand how our tools shape who we are. I would recommend this book to those who have followed Turkle’s writings in the past and who may be curious about the personal story that has informed her work.