By SVEN BIRKERTS
Special to The Globe and Mail
Tuesday, June 5, 2012 Print Edition, Page R4
The Virtual Self: How Our Digital Lives Are Altering the World Around Us
By Nora Young
McClelland & Stewart, 240 pages, $29.99
In The Virtual Self, Nora Young, creator and host of the CBC Radio program Spark, has delivered an engagingly prescient entry-level exploration of what promises to be yet another transformation of life in our increasingly digitized culture.
That "yet another" sounds blithe, but only because changes wrought by technology have been battering us for decades now. From connectivity to Google to Facebook to Wikipedia - we have all gotten a bit punch-drunk. But what Young identifies here is less a particular technology and more a development enabled by the convergent influence of this whole array of digital forces.
Young begins innocently enough with a personalized, slightly bemused look at the emerging contemporary trend of "self-tracking" - how we use our agile and sophisticated techno-tools to record our own behaviours: distances we walk, what we eat, how we spend our money. But these are only the most obvious instances. Living as we do in an intelligent environment that scans our actions in so many ways, interacting with it via our myriad apps, we are turning our lives into searchable databases.
This can have certain advantages. One value, Young theorizes, is in "the creation of a feedback loop between how I behave in the flesh-and-blood world and what my data-mapped self tells me." We can, if we choose, use these feedback loops to try to alter our behaviour. Walk more, eat less, manage our finances. Commendable aims all. And not finally revolutionary in themselves; Young points us back to Ben Franklin's painstaking daily self-accountings.
But Franklin lived in an era of the penny saved and earned, and he made his notations for himself with a sharpened pencil. We move about in a world of social media and vast corporate systems, and many of the bits of data we generate have uses we can scarcely conceive. Our cellphone is a GPS offering all sorts of statistical nuggets to analysts. That CD we bought and noted is already a factoid in somebody's marketing plan.
This is not breaking news, either. Social analysts have been tracking our digital footprints for a while. The interest of Young's presentation is, I think, in her marshaling of diverse evidence toward a singularly disturbing claim. She writes: "We have embraced the self as something that can be studied, pointed to, and refined. Modern culture as a whole has driven us to become disciplined and productive beings, and over time we've come to see that productive, objectified self as the very definition of who we are...." The assertion is offered in such a reasonable tone that we might almost read past it - except that Young's perspectives make the recognition hard to avoid.
Unpack those abstractions - as this book most readably does - and you get what the author is really saying. We are, by degrees, but quite rapidly, transitioning from one way of being to another, perforating the walls of the bounded free-standing self, removing ourselves from our former core subjectivity. No longer merely inhabiting ourselves, we are increasingly watching that inhabiting and making choices based on what we see.
And we are, at the same time, handing over the autonomy that ought to underlie our acts of choosing. As we incorporate self-surveillance into every least gesture of our living, and publicize ourselves relentlessly through social media, we are, usually unbeknownst to ourselves, handing the data that is us over to agencies and corporations that can put the information to the most cunning uses. A secondary feedback loop, if you will.
Young is aware of the dangers, but maybe not enough. She finds these developments more exciting than worrisome. She ends The Virtual Self with various sensible cautions, advising us to take steps to protect our information. But the larger trends she has outlined suggest that they won't be much use. George Orwell wrote, in 1984, "Big Brother is watching you." Media theorist Mark Crispin Miller, writing about television, gave those words a clever spin, proposing: "Big Brother is you, watching." The focus has narrowed again. The next Big Brother might be you watching yourself.