Book review: The Virtual Self

Book review: The Virtual Self

I’m going to reveal a secret to you right now: as I write this post I’m wearing sweatpants and a tank top and my hair is in its naturally curly disarray. This is a far cry from the professional photo I display on my various social media profiles. Dressed as I am, I go through my day interacting with people on Twitter, sending and receiving countless text messages and emails – I have conversations with countless people but I don’t hear their voices, see their faces or shake their hands. Many of these people I have never met in “real” life but they have access to my  “digital” life through my Twitter bio, LinkedIn profile and can view the photos of the food I eat, which I post shamelessly and probably too often.

In today’s world this doesn’t make my daily interactions any less real. But when it comes down to it: who am I? Am I the person dressed casually at home or the person I portray myself to be in the Twittersphere?

The virtual self - Nora Young book review

This is just one of the fascinating topics Nora Young (@nora3000) explores in her new book The Virtual Self: How Our Digital Lives Are Altering The World Around Us. Young is the host and creator of Spark, a show about technology and culture on CBC Radio. I picked up a copy of her book when I attended the most recent Third Tuesday Calgary MeetUp (#TTYYC), where Young gave a presentation and answered questions.


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The book is founded on the rising popularity of self-tracking through digital technology. Young points out that self-tracking behaviours are not a product of digital technology but have actually played a pivotal role in the way humans have established self-identity throughout history. The difference is that we now have access to an endless supply of digital tools that can track what we eat, how much we sleep and literally every step we take in a day. But beyond that, Young notes that these digital devices are remarkably smart: “they know how, when and often where they are being used.”

With all of this information about us available in the digital space, whether we’ve intentionally provided it ourselves or it’s been gathered inadvertently through the tools we use, each of us has what Young calls a “Data Map”:

Think of this digital self as a doppelganger, a companion in your everyday existence. It is the sum of all those status updates about how you are feeling, what you did, how you moved, where you ate, how long you spent reading PerezHilton.com compared to The New Yorker online. It will often be linked to actual physical locations, and it will often be public.

With this concept established, Young moves on to examine the impact it will have not only on our personal identities, but also on our cultures and communities. She embarks on this journey by trying countless self-tracking apps and by speaking to scientists, designers, academics and people literally tracking every single aspect of their lives.

In the final half of the book, Young delves into the ramifications our growing Data Maps will have on such things as the communities we live in, the way diseases and natural disasters are tracked and responded to and the potential impact on human memory.

Of course this also leads to discussions on many of the topics I’ve covered throughout the digital literacy series: privacy concerns and data ownership, copyright and legal concerns, marketing and business opportunities and political engagement. Here she offers a call to action – we must all become digitally literate so that we know exactly who owns our data and how it’s being used. Data can unite communities and be used for the greater good or it can be exploited. Young challenges us to decide which of these takes place.

With practical examples, interviews with trailblazing individuals, and the insight Young offers through her willingness to submit herself as a test subject for a number of self-tracking technologies, The Virtual Self is a thought provoking and informative read. Highly recommended.

By the way, after I finished reading this book I was pleased to realize that casual dressed me and Twitter me are one and the same. Phew.

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