Blogs & Comment

The Virtual Self: Nora Young on digital self-tracking

Ever wonder why people share so much info about themselves on Facebook and Twitter?


Have you ever wondered why people share so much information about themselves on Facebook and Twitter? Have you ever thought about how all of that data might be used in the bigger picture? Have you ever wondered whether all of that stuff might actually be worth more than just free access to a site that lets you share photos?

Nora Young, host of the CBC radio program Spark, tackles all of these topics and more in her new book The Virtual Self: How Our Digital Lives Are Altering the World Around Us. The book provides a lot of food for thought in regards to why we engage in all this self-tracking, and what it all might mean as it develops further.

Last week, I had a long chat with Nora and we delved into some of these topics.

What’s your back-of-the-book pitch? What’s it all about?

It’s really about the accumulation of what I’m calling the statistical minutiae of every-day life. I’m not talking about over-sharing on Facebook; I’m talking about the way we’re starting to pump out enormous amounts of data about where we’re going, what we’re doing, how we’re reacting to the world around us, the pictures that we’re taking of all the stuff that we do in our daily life. That’s everything from wearing a Nike Plus when you do your runs to checking in on Foursquare to registering a status update on Facebook or Twitter or posting innumerable photos from your cellphone camera.

So it’s thinking about both why it is we’re doing this thing that’s sort of odd on a personal level, but also looking at, on a collective level, how this information can be used for beneficial ends and also what the red flags are as we go forward.

You deal with a lot of topics on Spark. Why did you choose this one to write about?

One of the people I talk to in the book is Nicholas Felton, who was on Spark very early on. He’s a guy who documents enormous amounts about his own life and publishes a report of this kind of statistical minutiae. I thought that’s really interesting, but as I looked at him and other people like him—other life loggers and life cachers—I thought, really, it’s just sort of the bleeding edge of what a lot of us are starting to do more and more because it’s so easy to do now.

We carry these tools all the time, whether it’s our ebook or tablet computers or cellphones, so I started to think maybe we’re looking towards a near future where in some ways we’re all Nicholas Feltons, keeping this enormous amount of data. My initial reason for wanting to look at it was curiosity because it is a surprising thing, that we’re interested in tallying up this sort of thing. I was curious about the psychology and history behind that. It was only later once I started working on the book that the sort of bigger picture of aggregating this kind of information and what that might mean really occurred to me.

You mention using a few online tracking tools, such as RescueTime. Were you using them before or did you get into them while working on the book?

Like most people I’d experimented here and there with keeping track of things, like what I eat or wearing pedometers and things like that. I tried to do it mostly because I didn’t want to be judgmental or dismissive about these kinds of things without experiencing it myself and seeing how it played out in my own life. So I experimented with a few of them.

I have to say, as a person, detail is not my strong suit, so I found it difficult to continue with any real rigour in doing these things. My suspicion is that as we use more and more of these tools and as it becomes easier to do so, you won’t actually have to be particularly disciplined in order to use it. The service I was using,, it’s still pretty analogue because you still have to think, ‘Okay, what am I going to track and let me remember to keep track of those things and so forth.’ As you look into the future, a lot more of that is going to be like RescueTime where all you have to do is the initial download of the software and then it tracks what you do without having to consciously do anything.

So a lot of this tracking is going to become automated?

I think so. In some ways, that’s logical and helpful in the sense that it makes it easier to do, but in some ways I also think there’s a downside to it in that it takes away some of the consciousness to the process. One of the things I noticed is that in deciding what it is you want to track and then making the effort to actually do it, you bring a certain amount of thoughtfulness to the process than if it’s just being captured automatically. People have obviously done this for a long time—they’ve kept paper diaries for ages and books of their expenses or what they eat if they’re dieting or whatever—but digital has this quality of “knowing” how it’s being used. This is sort of a natural extension as we are using more and more apps on our phones and carry our tablets with us all the time. As more of our analog practices become digital, it’s kind of in the nature of digital that information can be recorded more easily.

You talk about two kinds of self-tracking, with the first being the personal individual kind. Why do people do it?

There are a few answers to that. On the one hand, it’s just a very practical thing. People use it to motivate themselves or change behaviours. On the other hand, part of it is also a desire to create a narrative out of our lives. We don’t want to feel like our lives are just one damn thing after another, right? The ability to track these things and display them in a way that is accessible and attractive—so it’s not just that you have to use an Excel spreadsheet—for a lot of these things you can see a really nice graph, that helps us develop this feeling of wanting to have a narrative to our lives. People are generally interested in self understanding. Ours is an era that likes numbers and stats so in an earlier age you might have written things in a narrative sense, like in a diary, but now there’s a certain kind of confidence we get in our own era from having things displayed numerically. It’s just where we are as a culture right now. We love that kind of stuff.

The second kind of tracking you write about is external, or the kind that companies and governments do. You deal with both the positives and the negatives—does one outweigh the other?

The main danger is obviously privacy. There has been some evidence that even when information is “anonymized,” researchers have had some success in de-anonymizing parts of supposedly anonymized data. My initial concern with this is that beyond the public policy discussions, in some ways we don’t even understand the math of this very well, or what keeps that data safe and anonymous. From the point of view of making our communities smarter and better, we don’t need to know what Pete Nowak or Nora Young are doing, we only need to know what people are doing. The question of privacy is obviously enormous.

Because it is this feature of digital information, where it goes from one context and is easily put into another, we often think about what information we put out there and are you being too public with the stuff you should be private about, but the character of being able to take information from one context and put it into another makes it very difficult for us to see sometimes what we should and shouldn’t be revealing.

For instance, there was that woman in Quebec whose insurance company investigated her on Facebook. I believe she was on disability leave for depression and her insurance company found photos of her smiling on the beach and raised questions about whether she was depressed. Who knows what the actual facts of the matter are, but regardless, there’s nothing particularly revealing or sinister or oversharing about having a picture of yourself smiling on a beach. For information to be taken from context and put into another, it does raise questions about what kind of purposes that information will be put to. Those are in some ways my primary concerns.

With opportunities, when you think about how much we’ve had to structure our cities, for instance, based on a lack of knowledge or a relatively static availability of knowledge like census data, if we can create essentially a live feedback map or loop between what’s happening in the flesh-and-blood world around us and how we track that digitally, the potential is to create much more responsive communities.

There’s one researcher at MIT, Sandy Pentland, who calls this “dynamic demographics,” which nicely gets at that sense of taking what was formally a static thing—that is demographics—and turning it into something that’s very responsive. There is quite a bit of research that’s being done into this kind of stuff at MIT, specifically around cellphones and the idea that if you know where they are you by extension know where people are, and what could you do if you figured out if the city could be considered more of an organic thing. I find that really fascinating and there have been some really good, early projects. We’re just at the very beginnings of seeing what you could potentially use that information for—how do you do it in a way that protects people’s privacy, and addressing other questions about the usefulness of the data? And at what point does data become statistically reliable? At what point does people’s self reporting on matters become reliable?

I certainly don’t claim to know the answers or that there are no problems associated with using the data, but I think it’s a really promising area of research.

In your book, you also touch on copyright issues. Content owners are cracking down on privacy yet individuals have to accept terms of service agreements without any input. Is there an imbalance forming between corporate and individual rights?

In terms of service agreements in particular, I spoke to Ian Kerr at the University of Ottawa about some of the issues that come out of this and it’s mostly his observation that we have this standard form contract where you click “I agree.” Obviously it’s not practical for you to negotiate your own separate contract between you and Facebook, there’s a reason for why we have these things, and yet when we’re dealing with our data, this is really quite new.

If we had been born digital and none of those external things like terms of service agreements were in existence, we probably wouldn’t be thinking about negotiating those relationships in the way that we currently do. Again, one of the things that people who know a lot more about this stuff than I do (lawyers and so forth) are thinking about whether we need something like a data bill of rights or whether we need to think in terms of ownership of data and be more rigorous in the governance of who can do what with it.

Obviously in Canada we’re lucky enough to have organizations such as the Office of the Privacy Commissioner who are writing those questions. It seems pretty clear that if we’re going into a situation where theoretically it’s starting to look like our lives are being captured, do we really want to be relying just on these individual terms of service agreements or maybe what we want to say is that we’re the people who have the data, the data belongs to us and we decide when we want to lend it out and make it available to other third parties.

I consider it a completely fair exchange to be on Facebook for free and the quid pro quo is that they get to use my preferences and so on to sell me advertising. That might be a completely legitimate decision for me to make. But right now, what seems to be happening is that we have all of this personal data that we’re creating that’s kind of separated into all these different companies with which we have a relationship, which are governed by these terms of service agreements that are difficult to understand. They don’t really give us the power to control our data or bring it all together in one place. As we start thinking about whether this information has value, maybe we need to recalibrate that relationship.

We’re sharing more on social networks than ever before, yet we also get upset when those businesses use our info in ways we might not like. Are we more or less private than we’ve ever been?

That’s a great question. I don’t know. In some respects we’re less private, but I also feel that for many of us, our online lives have really become less disclosing in a sincere way and more about managing “Brand You.” Our personal profiles online often don’t seem super-personal, they often seem like if we had hired individual marketing departments. It’s what they would be coming up with to display ourselves to the world. I don’t know if we’re really revealing more of who we really are online. We’re revealing a certain kind of snapshot of who we are.

When we use these products and services we’re encouraged to reveal ourselves in a particular type of way. When you use Facebook, you’re encouraged to define who you are in virtue of things like the music that you like and the TV shows you watch and where you went to school and what your job is, which presents a certain picture of you—and most of all, you as a consumer—but it certainly doesn’t depict all of who you are.

One of the things I think is worth exploring is how do we pick the tools that we use to reveal what we really want to share about ourselves? Maybe there are platforms and tools that are more flexible than what we currently have and give us greater control over what we want to reveal and how much we want to reveal about ourselves and don’t limit us in ways that a lot of social networking tools do.

The idea of privacy that has really been at least challenged in recent years is itself a historical contingent. The idea of the private individual is a kind of concept of an individual psyche that is itself a relatively recent historical invention. It’s easy if you lived through it to see that there’s some sort of sea change that’s happened—before we used to be private and now we’re public—but really over the course of history it’s always been kind of fluid, what’s considered to be the boundaries of what’s private and public.

I was just reading about the invention of central heating and when that became more available to working class and middle class environments, it suddenly meant that people could have way more privacy in their homes because if every room in a house is freezing cold except for the room where the fireplace is, you’re going to be spending more and more time together. There are a lot of historically contingent things that change our idea of private and public space. I tend to be more forgiving for where we are now because of that.

When I lived in China I found there was much less privacy, just because there were so many people. When people go online they’re joining a population of billions, so might privacy be proportionate to the size of the group you’re in?

It’s an interesting thought. Sometimes the experience of using Twitter gives you this sense that you’re this one tiny voice. You do get the feeling of anonymity even though you’re not anonymous, but there’s so many millions of voices everywhere and it’s so open that you can have that feeling of being free to say whatever you want without consequence because it’s that sort of anonymity through obscurity. But we know that’s actually illusory—your tweets are public. When more people were doing things like blogging as opposed to all these social media things, they had a different sense of what they were revealing and weren’t revealing and how public they chose to be online. It was kind of a big decision.

I was speaking to a blogger who writes a blog now that’s not controversial and had never really been controversial, but she was telling me that when she first started, it was a big thing for her to be anonymous because that idea of being that revealing was such a new thing. For many bloggers it still is. To what extent are you prepared to publicly identify as this person? Somehow in these other worlds and communities where there’s just this huge amount of data flowing, we don’t always have that clear of a sense of owning the information we’re putting out there just because there’s so much of it.

Among your conclusions is the suggestion that we shouldn’t become slaves to the data we’re creating. Can you expand on that?

This information can be useful. It can be useful in the aggregate and it can also be the kind of thing that gives us personal insight. But we have to remember that it doesn’t show the whole picture. In particular, what I kind of worry about is the reduction of the body to a set of performative statistics where we don’t really take seriously the kind of thing that self-tracking can’t capture. There’s a lot about how your body is feeling and what your body is telling you about how you’re living your life that can’t really be captured by that type of data.

What worries me is if we keep reducing everything to what digital does well, what happens to the stuff that digital doesn’t do well? We talked about how Facebook encourages you to come up with lists of things you like, well in part that’s the sort of thing that digital does very well. But life is not all about lists, there’s a lot more to introspection and feeling that can’t be captured in that kind of way.

I’m not the only one who thinks this, but the way in which we’re starting to reduce memory to what is recorded is worrisome. There’s more to having a memory than the thing that you captured on your blog or in your data set or the picture you took with your cellphone camera. I worry that we’re losing the distinction between remembering and recording. As we capture more and more of what goes on around us, I think we risk losing that distinction.

What’s the benefit of remembering something the way that it didn’t happen?

I talked to one guy in the book, Victor Meyer Schlumberger, who talks a lot about the subjectivity of human memory. That to me is really interesting. I talked earlier about how we want to create a narrative out of our lives and there’s a certain narrative that emerges out of statistics and data. But I also think part of what it means to make sense of your life is really bound up with the way memory changes. When I think back to something that happened when I was 28, the way I remember it is very different now than it was at the time. It’s not just because time has passed and I don’t remember it as clearly, it’s because who I am is different.

How I remember that and how I shape the story of my life over time, that’s part of how I become a more interesting human being. It’s not in simply reviewing the tapes, as it were. The events that happened when I was 28 are different because of something that happened when I was 35. That subjective layer is something that digital doesn’t capture. That’s fine as long we remember we’re not capturing it.

So it can be something that seems horrible at the time, but as the years go by you might realize it was the best thing that ever happened to you?

Yeah, exactly. It’s that question of what does an event mean? What an event means independent of the context or passage of time, that changes in a way that looking at the raw data can’t capture.