Debugging the free will relationship

In 1987, British TV station Channel 4 had a series called Voices that included four programmes on psychoanalysis. One of the guests was psychologist Sherry Turkle, years before she became well-known for her groundbreaking work on the internet and identity, and she makes some strikingly prophetic comments about free will and technology that ring true today but were dismissed at the time.

This is from the book (ISBN 0851244920) of the discussions. In this part, Turkle was talking with presenter Michael Ignatieff and psychoanalysts Philip Rieff and Geoffrey Hartman. Unfortunately, the text is a direct transcript so it retains the awkwardness of the spoken word written down but you can see that she had remarkable foresight.

Turkle: I’m seems to me that the issue of free will is for us today what sex was for the Victorians. The same urgency about sexuality and interdictions about sexuality that so tormented the Victorian spirit, we are now tormented by questions having to do with whether or not we are actors, our own centre, whether, to take computer examples, whether we are programmed from the outside. In what sense are we not like machines? In sociobiology, it raises the question in what sense are we like or not like animals, in a very serious way. It seems to me that fields of study like Artificial Intelligence, like sociobiology, the use of computer metaphors to describe people in everyday parlance, much as psychoanalysis was picked up in everyday parlance – ‘I’m debugging a relationship’ – that kind of talk, raises the issue of free will and to the extent to which we are actors in a very urgent, hot way. And that Freud remains an urgent and a hot thinker, not just for the contribution about sexuality, the family, the question of parents, but by this discovery of the unconscious which makes us take seriously a way of talking about this sense in which we are not our own centre.

Rieff: I don’t think that that is what is happening. I think that the self, the ego, the agent of reality is being fragmented…

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