The Public Intellectual as Agent-Egoist: Sherry Turkle’s Ethnography

Marcus Breen


Few academics who become public intellectuals have the opportunity to use their research findings to influence and direct public opinion. Sherry Turkle is a public intellectual whose work as a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor of the social studies of science and technology is critically considered in this exploration of a single public presentation based on her 2015 book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age. Drawing deeply on subjective observations, Turkle performs public ethnography, using her knowledge and practice as a psychologist to create what she has called “computer psychotherapy.” This type of ethnographic practice operates within an agent-egoist model of performativity, which Turkle uses to establish her opposition to student use of laptops and social media in classrooms. Arguing in favor of and thereby privileging classroom conversation, Turkle misses the challenge of rendering creative pedagogical options for millennials in the context of their enriched, always-on digital lives. As a public intellectual, she fails to assist the public and educators explore collective and progressive options to technology within emerging forms of pedagogy.


Sherry Turkle, public intellectual, public ethnography, agent-egoist, computer psychotherapy, MIT, pedagogy, Millennials, Social Media

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