Nora Young and The Virtual Self

The Virtual Self
Are you alive or simply a stream of data?

Are you alive or simply a stream of data? According to Nora Young, author and host of CBC Radio's trends and tech show Spark, we could already be well on our way to becoming a strange hybrid of both.

Young is one of Canada's new technology philosophers; a woman who likes wearing two very different hats. The first hat is that of the exuberant geek who clearly loves gamboling through the rapidly changing new media landscape. The second hat is worn by a concerned Cassandra, the Greek goddess famous for her gift of prophecy, but cursed because nobody listens to her.

We can only hope that many will read and heed Young's excellent book, The Virtual Self: How Our Digital Lives are Altering the World Around Us, as the author considers how to react to the endless streams of data now surrounding us.

First stop -- what do you look like on the Internet? Have you ever stopped long enough to wonder what kind of a virtual self you're leaving behind every time you click "like," perhaps rant on a blog, maybe buy a bunch of books -- of course there will be a list of titles, or contribute funding to rabble.ca? It all exists and according to Young, it can, and it will, be crunched into a psychologically virtual mirror of how you behave in your own home.

Next, you take your data collecting machine (GPS enabled smart phone) outside and every time you take a picture, tweet a restaurant review or praise a concert, once again more personal data is assembled. Only this time the mirror reflects you while you're on the road.

Finally, there is the author's fascination with how we actually track the nuts and bolts, the detailed minutiae of our own bodies. Young and I record thesniffer.net, a trends in tech podcast. She is convinced that humans are hardwired to monitor our physical bodies with all manner of gizmos: pedometers, sleep trackers, heart monitors etc.

If you doubt her claim, Young includes a delightful chapter called "Meet Productivity Guru -- Ben Franklin." Mr. Franklin (the father of electricity) was utterly obsessed with bettering himself through self tracking and Young effectively argues that our fascination with our bodies is a timeless human need.

Now what do we do with all of this data? According to Young, this is going to be one of the most important decisions we make in the near future.

Let's begin with the personal. Young is emphatic that every individual should own their own data and not the varying apparatuses like Facebook, Yelp, Google, to name a few, who collect it. I would imagine that it is impossible to keep the data gleaners out of the mix, but Young feels very strongly that in the future we should regard our personal information much in the same way that we would protect our intellectual property. Our data is something of value and should we decide to sell it, that should be our decision, and conversely should we decline, it's very important have that right as well.

Why all the fuss? Beyond the simple value of our data to advertisers, there are a number of cautionary tales already about people whose personal information was unearthed and they suffered greatly for it. Do you recall the story of the woman who was on disability insurance due to depression? During this period she took a holiday and posted photos of herself on Facebook smiling. Her insurance company obtained these images and the woman's claim is being disputed. This is just one of many examples.

Make no mistake, in the future corporations will be using your data to sell you stuff or even spy on you. In The Virtual Self, Young warns us to let governments firmly know your stance. It's your personal data and it belongs to you. Because once your rights are gone, they will be very difficult to regain.

There are also many ways our collective data could be used as a technological force for good. In Portland in 2010 everyone heard a great big boom but nobody knew its cause. Curious citizens began to tweet about how close the boom was, its tenor, and the time it was heard. After the Twitter feed was analyzed, the boom turned out to be a bomb, but even more importantly investigators discovered that Twitter was a much quicker and inexpensive tool than traditional, door-to-door police procedure.

Young feels that if we utilize this technology and encourage our citizens to contribute we can create an army of engaged data activists. Data activists will provide information which will be aggregated, creating smart maps that will allow us to see how our cities and countries truly work. And then we can begin making our towns and cities better. The key is inviting the population to participate. As Young says, "You can view the city as built by governments or corporations. Or you can view it as being built by citizens."

Isn't that a thrilling clarion call? And it's just one in a book bursting with exciting and occasionally alarming ideas. The Virtual Self is a must read.Cathi Bond

Cathi Bond is an author and broadcaster currently working on a trilogy of novels set in Toronto, in a period that spans the Great Depression to the dawn of the 21st century.

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