Nora Young's The Virtual Self


First aired on Homerun (12/04/12)

nora-young-175.jpgFor many people around the world, it can sometimes feel like we're living a double life -- one based in reality and one based online. So many activities and interactions we used to have in real life are being increasingly done in the digital realm, from watching movies to shopping to socialization. And with all the developments in mobile technology, that separation between your real self and your virtual self is narrowing.

Which is why CBC host and technology journalist Nora Young has been keen to explore our digital personas and how best to deal with potential issues that no generation has previously experienced. Her new book The Virtual Self: How Our Digital Lives Are Altering the World Around Us looks at these dilemmas. She's been particularly interested in our keen interest in "self-tracking," which is different from the "confessional culture" of Facebook and blogging.

"So [self-tracking] might be anything from tracking your runs with Nike+ Run to checking in on Foursquare to posting status updates on Facebook, to posting restaurant reviews on something like Urban Spoon, all of the little everyday kinds of features that we're starting to keep track of and also that we're starting to share with other people," Young said in a recent interview with Homerun. "And the reason why we're doing this is, of course, we have more and more digital devices that make it so very easy to do that kind of tabulating and sharing."

At first glance, these activities seem trivial and harmless. But we're putting more and more information about ourselves online, and once that data is aggregated, it can give a fairly comprehensive and accurate picture of who we are and what we do. And Young is fascinated by all the positive, and negative, outcomes that can result. On the one hand, all the information could help society become more responsive and beneficial. On the other hand ...

"Well, for sure the elephant in the room is privacy, right?," she acknowledged. "I think that anybody who is on Facebook and has started to use the Facebook timeline feature has suddenly realized this experience of what happens when you take what feels, at the time, this ephemeral nonsense that you're just spitting out, and suddenly when you bring it altogether, you realize with a shock, 'boy, there's an incredible amount of information about me that's been stored.'"

virtual-self-125.jpgYoung feels we're at a challenging stage in the development of social media because these online tools for documenting our lives are so new and there hasn't really been enough public dialogue about what should govern the privacy norms and who owns that information.

"I really think we're going to start to see some border wars and skirmishes in this issue as people realize, you know what, it's not enough just to click 'I agree' to a terms of service contract that's 18 pages long or whatever," Young said. "We actually have to have some real public conversations about this, because it's not just about the information you're storing with one service, [it's about] the information that we're starting to store on all these different services, and what happens when you pull all that information together?"