While the media concentrate public attention on the wonders of computers - what people can do with the aid of these machines - some thinkers are beginning to explore the reverse question of what computers are doing to people.
The neutrality of the title of Sherry Turkle's book, not so much sounding a warning as staking out subject matter, is remarkably sustained throughout the text itself. She aims to be descriptive and analytical, not advocative or alarmist. Much of her book is devoted to vignettes that enable the reader to glimpse, at what might be called ''immediate secondhand,'' the attitudes and behavior of the computer users she later comments on.
Turkle's home base is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she is an associate professor, but her book draws on ''many thousands of hours of interviews and observations all over the United States,'' she states. Her framework is psychological and sociological, but her writing style is well suited to readers who are nonspecialists in these fields.
Turkle guides the reader to her broad topic through an easy entrance: children and what they say about computers. I say ''easy,'' because an adult of whatever computer experience can assume he knows more about this subject than a child, and he can feel pleasantly superior in the opening chapter. Yet Turkle, through her transcripts of what the children are saying, gets us thinking early about such challenging questions as how ''alive'' or ''intelligent'' computers seem to be. ''Sometimes,'' Turkle adds, ''children who would say computers were 'not alive' betrayed more complex feelings by treating them as though they were.''
The author also mediates in the area of computer-based video games, like Pac-Man. While respecting adults' concern over possible addiction, Turkle insists ''there is nothing mindless about mastering a video game. The games demand skills that are complex and differentiated. ... There is learning how to learn.''
She also devotes a chapter to ''hackers,'' meaning programming specialists who can hardly tear themselves away from a computer to eat, sleep, or socialize. In line with her subtitle, ''Computers and the Human Spirit,'' Turkle shows less concern about the impact on society of illegal activities of some hackers than about what, from the point of view of her psychology training, makes them run so hard in pursuit of highly efficient, admirably clever computer programs.
By far the most intellectually stimulating part of Turkle's book is the section on artificial intelligence (AI). She reports dispassionately on the basic controversy over whether computers do, or could be made to, think. At present, the daily work in AI laboratories ''seems mundane,'' compared with the aspirations voiced by AI's most enthusiastic supporters. Right now, the emphasis is on ''knowledge engineering or expert systems'' and on industrial robots.
''Most research is directed at having machines do what most people would consider 'child's play' - for example, recognizing and picking up an object,'' Turkle writes. ''When it comes to systems that deal directly with the world, the state-of-the-art in artificial intelligence is not adequate to get machines to do even the things that two-year-olds find easy.''
On the other hand, if AI succeeds in approximating the common-sense thinking of the child, ''the problems of sophisticated intelligence would quickly succumb ,'' in the view of some proponents of AI.
Turkle observes that ''in asserting the primacy of program, artificial intelligence is making a big claim, announcing itself, as psychoanalysis and Marxism had done, as a new way of understanding almost everything. In each case a central concept restructures understanding on a large scale: for the Freudian, the unconscious; for the Marxist, the relationship to the means of production ... for the AI researcher, the idea of program has a transcendent value: it is taken as the key, the until now missing term, for unlocking intellectual mysteries.''
In her choice of topics for popular consideration, as well as in her felicitous writing style, Sherry Turkle lives up to her stated aim to help us all ''think in (a) more textured way about our relationships with technology.''