Nora Young, The Virtual Self: How Our Digital Lives Are Altering the World Around Us (McClelland & Stewart, $29.99)
Review copy supplied by publisher
A radio program such as CBC Radio’s “Spark,” which bills itself as “an ongoing conversation about technology and culture,” may hope to get across about three ideas in its half-hour time slot. That’s ten minutes for each idea. To get things going, the host, in this case Nora Young, may lay out the idea straight up. She might remark, for example, that people increasingly use online media to track aspects of their daily behavior. She might say something like, “Self-tracking is all the rage.” She’ll give a brief explanation of what she means by the phrase—something along the lines of keeping a detailed record of what we eat, how much we exercise, or how much time we spend on Facebook—before throwing in a personal anecdote. She might mention that she has been using a website, rescuetime.com, to monitor her own propensity to procrastinate when she should be working diligently. Then she’ll interview someone, perhaps the person who invented the website or a certified geek who uses it obsessively. They will agree that self-tracking is, indeed, a growing phenomenon and one that merits careful watching. Then she’ll move on to something else.
In a radio program, the host knows she’s competing for the listener’s attention. The people who populate radio land are quite likely to be preoccupied while the radio is on—cooking, cleaning, conversing with their partners or reading the paper. The host can’t reasonably expect to develop an argument in a linear fashion, citing cases and presenting evidence, bringing in conflicting views and then refuting them, gradually building towards a surprising but apparently irrefutable conclusion. She can’t do this because she knows most of her audience is only barely paying attention. At any moment they are quite likely to leave the room, answer the phone or, perish the thought, close their eyes and take a nap.
So the host deploys a range of devices to hold them. She is charming, sassy and self-deprecating. She invites listeners to think of her as a friend. (It’s rude, after all, to tune out while a friend is talking.) She does not require really close attention: she has just a single notion to convey in each ten-minute span. She states it plainly and then reiterates it in different ways, maybe bringing in music, sound effects and different voices. She broaches nothing that’s too challenging, at least, not all at once. She doesn’t want to make her friends feel stupid, after all. She makes it clear at the start of each ten-minute segment where she’s headed and, when she gets there, she says it again. That’s how it is with radio.
Books are different.
First off, the reader has made a commitment simply by picking up the book and breaking it open. He’s focused. And even if he gets distracted—if the doorbell rings or the dog needs attention—he can put the book down and then pick it up again later, even backtrack to get himself re-oriented. It’s as easy as flipping the page. The kinds of distractions employed by a radio host to keep the listener engaged, the slangy asides, personal interjections and the constant circling back to the initial proposition are unnecessary and soon become tedious. Radio is ambient noise. A book is a linear progression.
I wish Nora Young had written her essay on the virtual self as if it were a book rather than a radio program. When she writes as if chatting to a friend that “I can imagine what you’re thinking right now …” “Welcome to your new digital self …” “Here’s what Ben Franklin did, in case you’re interested …” “A while back, I had a chance to chat …” “Big deal, right? What makes it so striking, though …” and (again) “Welcome to the booming world of data visualization …” I just get tired. I want her to get on with it. More facts, less fluff.
Still, notwithstanding the Young’s meandering approach to text, somewhere in this slim volume, there’s a handful of ideas worth paying attention to. Young is very good at picking up on technological trends and exploring their implications. And the trend that has so many of us posting personal information onto websites, blogs and a variety of apps, not to mention Facebook, Flickr, Pinterest and Twitter, is clearly significant. Young has gone to some trouble to figure out where all this sharing is taking us. This is stuff we need to know.
The website, rescuetime.com, is just one of myriad interactive online tools she describes. Others are designed to help us do everything from diet to dissect our financial destiny. What Young finds especially intriguing because of what it portends for the future, however, is the way all this personal data can be aggregated, analyzed and especially mapped to create an “ecosystem of the future.” The point of the phrase, presumably, is the emphasis it puts on our interdependence and the benefits to be gained by using technology cooperatively. After the tsunami and nuclear meltdown in Japan last year, for example, residents used Geiger counters to gauge radiation levels around their homes. They filed the numbers online using an open-source mapping site to produce a comprehensive picture of radiation in the region. This kind of grassroots information-gathering is empowering as well as practical and the possible variations are endless. There is a huge potential for doing good.
Young sees a world in which epidemiologists, using citizens’ self-reporting, will be able to respond in real time to a breakout of influenza and businesses will combine statistical data and information supplied by their customers to anticipate new commercial opportunities. Some of this is already happening, of course, and while much of it is positive, there are sinister implications as well. Young ends with an argument in favor of regulations that would deny Facebook, for example, a proprietary interest in the details that define us. She would make personal data portable, based on the principle that this information is actually ours.
Setting aside my slightly cranky objections to the casually discursive style in which the book is written (and an additional beef about the font, which employs the ugliest italic ever devised), The Virtual Self charts unfamiliar digital terrain. The view is startling and a bit alarming, but it’s almost certainly unavoidable. This is where we’re headed. This is our new digital home.