Peering into the soul of the virtual self

In April of this year I pre-ordered a Pebble, a new smartwatch that became a Kickstarter darling when it raised a kajillion dollars virtually overnight. Other than bragging rights, I want a Pebble because it will allow me to seamlessly track and record the average distance and speed of my bike rides to and from work.

But since my watch won’t arrive until September, I have some time to mull over the implications of self-tracking that Nora Young raises in her new book The Virtual Self: How Our Digital Lives Are Altering the World Around Us. Young explains how the combination of social media and geolocative smartphones now allow us to create elaborate shadow selves comprised entirely of data. Never before have we been able to share our daily activities with the world and also have them link back to our physical locations. The result is “a Data Map, a digital version of our earthly selves.”

The explosion of self-generated personal data has happened so quickly that we have yet to fully understand its implications. Through a combination of research, participatory journalism and in-depth interviews, Young considers the unintended consequences of our ability to post photos of everything we eat to Instagram and track our spending habits via

Young is not interested in scolding her readers, however. As she notes, “It’s easy to sit in judgment about self-monitoring, if you don’t do it. There is, however, something deeply human about the urge to document our lives, to look back at a pattern of our behaviour and make sense of it, to use it to construct the narrative of our lives.”

We are now able to crunch a variety of personal data and compare it against the Data Maps of others, using tools previously available only to major corporations. As Young notes, “The ability to reassemble information in new ways makes personal metrics much more powerful, allowing us to understand the meaning of our behaviour in a new way.” We have become test subjects in laboratories of our own design.

The problem, as Young points out, is that a Data Map cannot be used as a substitute for careful introspection. We can easily track calorie counts and bike routes, but even the most sophisticated pie chart or infographic built from our personal data will never be able to reveal our emotional or spiritual selves. Or, as Patrick McGoohan famously put in the 1960s show The Prisoner, “I am not a number. I am a free man.”

Young also identifies a major paradox: our digital obsession reduces our physical presence in the world, and to compensate for this disembodiment, we’re using the very same technology to try and reaffirm our identity. “Today’s urge to document the self is an attempt not just to assert the self but also to ground the self, to tether it, to re-embody it, to give it heft and substance.”

During a recent talk at Third Tuesday Toronto, Young used the invention of the telephone as a reminder that although technology might nudge us toward certain behaviours, it does not solely determine our actions. Many aspects of the telephone, including what to say when answering it (Alexander Graham Bell suggested “Ahoy”) were negotiated over time. The fancy term for this process is social constructivism, and Young argues in The Virtual Self that “we have the power to shape the character of our technologies.”

As our Data Maps grow in scope and importance, Young suggests that data portability will become a mainstream concern, and we might need to start treating personal data as a form of intellectual property. As Young notes, “The streams of data we’re creating are worth something. We want to access the data for our own purposes, but it’s also potentially useful to governments and to researchers interested in creating smarter policies and more responsive cities.”

In short, by the time my Pebble arrives, I will need to determine not only what I might want to measure, but why I want to track it in the first place.…