Turkle, empathy, Steve Jobs and the Macintosh

Hi MPUsers. I’ve long been a fan of Sherry Turkle’s thinking and writing about how we work technology and how it works us. I’ve just finished her memoir called “The Empathy Diaries” and it’s quite something: moving, smart and with remarkable insights into 1970s tech and computing (and ARPANET).

She describes the following:

I was at MIT when the first Macintosh computer—the spiritual descendant of the Alto from Xerox PARC—arrived at Seymour’s research group. People stood around just to watch it be unwrapped. And then to stare. Fonts. A mouse. Windows. Pull-down menus. Icons.

This new Apple presented the user with a simulated desktop and icons on a screen—representations of file folders, documents, a trash can—that offered nothing to suggest how their underlying structure could be known. The system told you to stay on the surface and to take things at interface value. When the world comes to us in simulation, we lose a sense of what lies beneath. And we learn to not care. The Macintosh gave more than a sleeker path to get things done. It introduced a new way to think. Apple called its interface “transparent.” But this transparency was what we used to mean when we said “opacity.”

She also describes a hilarious effort to host Steve Jobs for dinner at her place during a visit of his to MIT in 1977: “It’s the wrong kind of vegetarian”.

Thouroughly recommended.


Interesting post – thank you. I am also a fan of Turkle’s writing.

I’ve heard the “transparent”-meaning-opaque use throughout my work life, and always have to stop and decipher from the context what the writer or speaker means. Technicians especially seem to be ones who invert the meaning.

Yes, that reversal has long flummoxed me, and always forces me to pause. Very curious.