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The Wonders of Man in the Age of Simulations.


OFFERING NEITHER KURZWEIL’S EVANGELISM nor Lanier’s vision of the apocalypse, Sherry Turkle’s Simulation and Its Discontents delivers an entrancing and nuanced glimpse into the powerful yet intimate experiences that are transforming our world. We today, Turkle writes, “see the world through the prism of simulation.” This will be a surprise to many readers, but Turkle—an MIT professor and one of the leading sociologists of technology—makes her case persuasively through close attention to case studies of scientists and professionals. The fact of simulation, in her telling, is neither a human good nor a technological evil. It brings advantages and disadvantages and has proponents and detractors. Both sides are represented, but Turkle focuses on the dissenters. It is by focusing on those who are discontented, Turkle argues, that we can discover the “deep commitments” that undergird our increasingly simulated world.

What is simulation? It is not merely a new way to see or model or experience the world. It is, Turkle explains, “a new way of living, both a change of lens and a change of location.” But how does the simulated world work? What changes from the era before simulation? Or, as Turkle formulates the question: “What does simulation want?” Her answer is that simulation wants an immersion so deep in a technological reality that it comes to stand in for reality itself. The promise as well as the danger of simulation is that “Individuals become immersed in the beauty and coherency of simulation.” What simulation wants is such a complete immersion in a created and built artificial environment that the simulation proposes itself as a “proxy for the real.”

Simulation and Its Discontents is actually a collection of five case studies. The title essay, by Turkle, comprises the first half of the book and is followed by four shorter case studies observing scientists working on the Mars Exploration Rover (by William Clancey) and a remotely operated submarine (Stefan Helmreich), architects learning to use simulation software (Yanni A. Loukissas), and chemistry professors using simulations in the classroom (Natasha Myers).

Turkle’s essay, which grounds the book, brings together two exceptional studies of the integration of computers and simulation at MIT. In discussing the adoption of simulation by biologists, Turkle writes that “visualization and simulation underpin biology as it manipulates and reengineers life at the molecular and cellular level.” Models of life beyond what is visible and comprehensible by human intelligence mean that our understanding of life is based upon algorithms that “predict molecular interactions.” In this work, “Scientists have built a second nature within the computer through simulations that are ever more manipulable, ever more easily experimented on. Some describe the result of such virtual practices as ‘new forms of life.’” One problem with these “new forms of life,” however, is that they sometimes don’t fit with the complexity of real life.

Turkle traces two responses to the disconnect between reality and simulation. One group of scientists strives to retain a critical stance toward simulations, to remember that they are “just models.” One scientist worries that the increased use of off-the-shelf software is producing a generation of scientists who are losing control of their science to instruments that they don’t understand. She insists that despite its speed and advantages, this software deprives her students of “some fundamental experiences they need to develop” and “does not teach them how to use simulation with vigilance.”

Against scientists who view simulation with skepticism, Turkle presents another group of scientists, often younger, who “are increasingly comfortable with black-boxed simulations.” These scientists grew up with computers that they did not have to program themselves. If older scientists value transparency, younger scientists are accustomed to a new understanding of transparency. At one time, scientists understood transparency to mean the ability to access and understand the code of the instruments; now, they desire transparent applications that offer answers seamlessly without demanding any understanding from the user. Working with simulations that are transparent and thus seamless, younger scientists “are more likely than their elders to give themselves over to feeling in the grip of a new materiality.” They share an aesthetic with architects Turkle interviewed who spoke of the feeling of flying through three-dimensional buildings on their screens, images that cease to be mere models of real buildings. As simulations “engage the body” of their users, the simulations take on a material reality so that “users experienced the system as a prosthetic extension of themselves into what felt like a tangible world of screen molecules.”

Turkle worries that our attitude towards simulation has been transformed in ways still not understood. “These days, for simulation’s most sophisticated users, a critical stance is no longer about vigilance to protect simulation from error. It is about living with shadows that bring us closer to the forms beyond them.” (82) Even the experts, she writes, now struggle to recall that simulations are not real. Thus one chemistry professor Turkle interviews intentionally degrades her images to diminish their power to convince; others, of course, publicize their pretty and seemingly perfect simulations as the truth.

Amongst the many dangers that Turkle perceives is the immersive power of simulation to offer itself as the truth. Architects whom Turkle interviews repeatedly marvel at the ways that computer simulations make buildings look beautiful and complete. They find that once a design is fed into a computer and produced in 3D, it is very difficult to conceive it differently. Even if the design isn’t yet thought through or doesn’t work, they find the beautiful coherence of the simulated rendering compelling. Similarly, scientists find that they, as well as their students, are seduced by the seeming perfection of simulated reality and thus forget to mind the gap between the simulated and the real.

“The fantasy” of simulation, Turkle writes, is “visceral in nature,” and all too often “Computer precision is wrongly taken for perfection.” Even though the scientists know that “all simulations are wrong,” they have a hard time resisting their truth.

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