The Virtual Self by Nora YoungAs an editor and a student of Communications, I was intrigued by the hype around Nora Young’s new book. Unfortunately, I had to force myself to continue reading The Virtual Self: How Our Digital Lives Are Altering the World Around Us, and I never actually finished it. My main issues with it are: repetition, the concept of “so what?”, and the general organization. However, the tone and writing style is very conversational and accessible, very much like Nora Young’s show Spark on CBC Radio.

[Nora Young] explores the very real impact of the virtual information we generate about ourselves —on our own lives, our communities, and our government.

We generate enormous amounts of online data about our habits: where we go, what we do, and how we feel. Some of that is stuff we choose to report; some of it is the offhand data trails we leave behind. The Virtual Self looks at the debates and challenges around virtual data-sharing — from Facebook status updates to Google Navigator — and its potential for building more responsive communities and governments. Nora argues that if we wrestle now with issues like privacy and data control, we can harness the power of that data.

The host of CBC Radio’s Spark, Nora Young has fascinating information at her disposal, unique insights into the intersection of the virtual and real worlds, and a wonderful voice for making all of these clear to a general audience. Accessible and entertaining, The Virtual Self takes that personal, psychological reality of everything from email to status updates and teases out the increasingly bigger impacts on the real world around us of the virtual information we all generate.

From the publisher, McClelland & Stewart

I will admit that repetition and general organization of the book go hand-in-hand, and sometimes it was the colloquial tone that attributed to the repetition. However, this doesn’t excuse the fact that the book has little direction—she spends the first half of the book talking about self-tracking and how we do this, and a bit of the ‘why’. But she doesn’t go much deeper.

Perhaps it is my current mindset in academia, or my editor background, but I want stronger correlations, sources cited (or even just footnotes), and more in-depth analysis of the consequences. Young mentions this growing need to track our time (pg.22) but never addresses the question of ‘do we need to’ or ‘why do we feel we need to’. She simply mentions that we feel this growing need. BUT WHY?!? At one point, I actually wrote in the margin (in pencil which I erased after writing this blog post) “so what?”

At the end of the first chapter (p.32) Nora poses all the questions that have been bugging me so far: why we do this, what are the consequences, how does this change our relationships, etc. And then she creates the cardinal sin of essays: she doesn’t answer the question next. I understand that this is a tactic used to further engage readers, to dangle this carrot of a possibility so that we keep reading. However, in my opinion, if you’re still dangling these carrot-ledes at 30 pages into a 200 page book, something is wrong. By the end of the first chapter, readers should have a clear view of what the scope of the book is about, what the current situation is, and why it is important. The remainder of the book should build on this foundation. So, in the hopes that Nora was building (albiet slowly and painfully simply) I continued to read.

Young wrote, “As with the status update, this auto-reportage creates a persistent accounting or reckoning of the individual’s time and behaviour” (pg. 25). This idea reflects our North American culture of relentless scheduling and our ideology of self-improvement (3). She states that “social media has made us comfortable being public with personal information” (56). All these are great introductory statements that could start an entire chapter of investigative prose. Unfortunately these concepts are never developed further than the simple statement that they exist.

I was intrigued by Gary Wolf’s concept of “the data-driven life” and the four things he says changed to bring us into this phase: electronic sensors got small, people started carrying powerful devices, social media made it normal to share, fourth, the Cloud. Young addresses the electronics (which will soon be outdated) the social media (which is already changing) and that people have begun “monitoring [their] lives instead of living them”. Again, Young mentions this but doesn’t explore it deeper than a paragraph. Another unexpanded blanket statement: “The ability to reassemble information in new ways makes personal metrics much more powerful, allowing us to understand the meaning of our behaviour in a new way” (69).

Young brings up (in passing) a number of key phrases including life-caching, the Quantified Self, spime, feedback loop, stats-driven objectified activities, the selling of our information/demographics, the outboard brain (Cory Doctorow, 103), surveillance of self, privacy, inadvertent monitoring, online sharing to build communities, ambient awareness, the Hawthorne Effect, continuous partial awareness (Linda Stone, 89), email apnea, and digital ‘info-snacks’. All these concepts in a 200-page book is incredibly ambitious, but if you never actually define them properly or go into in-depth analysis, you can easily just name-drop them all in.

Young isn’t all bad. In discussing the rise of self-tracking, she mentions the clock, the increase in print literacy, and the innovation of inexpensive paper. “Humans are natural observes of patterns, we enjoy repetition and ritual and continuity” (p.45). We will track anything quantitative, an example Young uses is historically diaries had a public function such as a house guest book, Pepys diary, etc. Through tracking, insight can be gained over time, at a remove. Aristotle said “we are what we repeatedly do” (p.29), talking about patterns of our behaviour. Self tracking fulfills this desire although it is trivial it is also easy and we gain pleasure in sharing despite the oddness to others. Young notes that it is “less about the actual content of what’s being shared, and more about realizing that you are not alone, that there are others like you” (68). However, personally, I still find that this can leave you feeling empty. You’re putting a lot of yourself out there, but you may not be getting anything back in return.

By the start of chapter six (pg. 115) I was starting to lose it. “We talked about the factors—technological, psychological and cultural—that have come together for this new era of self-trackign to tack off.” Um …. no, we really haven’t. I cannot agree with this statement. You mentioned some history of technology, and some psychological desires, and a shift in cultural practices, but there has been no in-depth discussion of the WHY behind the factors. “WHY?! SO WHAT!?” If I were editing this, I would write nicely in the margins in green ink (because it’s nicer than angry red ink): “but why is this important?”

And it was at this point that I stopped paying a great deal of attention. I flipped through the next few chapters absent-mindedly. And when I reached the final chapter I read several pages. While Nora does have some general suggestions for us as users and a society (civic engagement, intellectual property rights, don’t blindly agree to Terms-of-Service Agreements), overall the book left a lot to be desired in my mind. If you are interested in reading, don’t be deterred on my account. I think the people that would find value in it would be individuals not already heavily knowledgeable in the workings of the digital world.