Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Data Revolution #1: The Virtual Self

The Quantified Self, Self-tracking, and our "Data Mapped" Virtual Selves

Data. We produce it, share it, and rely on it every day. We use it to help track our activities, to improve our lives, to know ourselves better than we ever have before. We create virtual images and breadcrumbs of our daily lives, share them with our friends, and build and curate temples to ourselves. Then we use that massive pool, that cloud of contributions, to plan our trips, research our purchases, and make the world a better place. And yet we continually ask ourselves: when does the use of our data cross the line? Are we living for better, or for worse?

"The Data Revolution Series" delves into the issues and intricacies of our increasingly data-driven lives, from tracking our everyday behaviour to contributing data points for the social good. Based on insights and commentary from technology journalist Nora Young's (@nora3000) first book, "The Virtual Self: How our Digital Lives are Altering the World Around Us", we'll take a look at the pros and cons of the changing data landscape. This first post in the series introduces the concept of "The Virtual Self"...


"The pattern I see emerging is one where everyday information about where we are going, what we are doing, and how we are moving, and how we feel is brought together in the creation of a digital picture of ourselves." -Nora Young, "The Virtual Self"

The Quantified Self

"The Virtual Self", the title of Nora Young's latest book and the theme of her presentation at Toronto's Third Tuesday meetup on June 25, 2012, strikes a chord in many ways. Not only does it nail the current zeitgeist trend that is permeating and changing the way that we live our lives, but it makes us question whether these changes are good for us or bad, and if it's the latter, whether there's anything that we can do to take greater control of how it influences us. The story of "The Virtual Self", although big, begins with a simple analysis of a current trend in our culture: self-tracking.

As Young describes, "More and more of us are keeping track of the statistical minutiae of daily life, leading lives that are increasingly numerically documented." Every day, consumers are tracking their activities, behaviours, and physical and emotional changes. For example, we track our running with Nike+, our reading progress and habits with Kobo's Reading Life, our opinions of restaurants and venues with Yelp, and our comings and goings from the same with Foursquare. GetGlue helps us keep track of the movies we've seen and the TV shows we've watched, Path helps us document our lives, including when we sleep and when we wake, and Mint.com helps us track how we're spending our money.

The end result is what many call the "Quantified Self", a "self-understanding by numbers, facts, or objective updates, not the free-form self-scrutiny or reportage of the diarist or blogger."

The Emergence of Self-tracking

How did this kind of life, and the behaviour of self-tracking, come to be? Young cites three elements of digital culture and technology that have contributed to this change in how we live our lives. The first is the rise of social media. Web 2.0, Young argues, planted the seeds required to convince us that sharing data and information about ourselves was a good thing. "As websites designed to help us post information took off, they encouraged us to share more and more details about our lives," she writes, "and to consider it quite ordinary to do so."

The second factor is the emergence of smartphones, and specifically, the accompanying app ecosystem. Prior to this, self-tracking involved buying separate devices and software for each part of our lives that we wanted to track, from our sleeping habits to the number of steps we walked to the number of calories that we ate. "The ‘app revolution’," she notes, "has made it easy to document highly specific types of information without having to invest in a new device." Not only did smartphones and apps make it easier to live a Quantified Life, it made it fun: "What would have been an unwieldy and bizarre commitment to personal information-gathering is now a casual and painless process...what once might have been an intensive, or very odd, personal commitment, [is now] an easy, off-the-shelf hobby.”

The final cultural shift is the growing importance of numbers and quantifiable results. With an increasing amount of uncertainty—in everything from the economy to the environment—consumers are seeking tangible ways to keep track of how the world around them is doing (from Unemployment Rates to the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere). They’re applying the same accountability to their own lives. Anand Giridharadas has called ours the “Age of Metrics”, referring to our newfound love of statistics and data.

Welcome to your Digital Data Map

The result of all our self-tracking is the aforementioned Virtual Self, what Young calls our individual digital "Data Map", a "digital, statistical version of [our] real, physical life." This is, in her words, a "digital version of our earthly selves", the "sum of all those status updates about how you are feeling, what you did, how you moved, what you ate." In other words, our Data-mapped Virtual Self is one that is "documented, recorded, enumerated, and public."

In the future, Young postulates, the contribution of information to our digital Data Maps will be increasingly dynamic and automatic, it will share our data with the right people and parties and move that information into the right context, depending on our needs. It will become so automatic and natural to us, she argues, that we will no longer identify with the concept of "going online” and “going offline". Instead, we’ll always be connected and contributing to our Data Maps.

This is, ultimately, the result of our increasingly digital lives. The increase in the prevalence of technology itself is increasing the relevance and impact of self-tracking. Young writes: "Simply by virtue of using digital tools, we are invoking a technology of surveillance of the self. As we replace our analog tools with digital devices, we’ll start to see a startlingly full picture of our behaviours, preferences, activities, and so on. As we stop reading paper books ad start using e-books, keep electronic calendars instead of paper diaries, and have our location-aware cellphones with us at all times, we are passively generating data about our behaviour.”

The question we might now ask ourselves is: why? Why have consumers fallen in love with the idea of self-tracking—how does it benefit us, and how does it fit into our culture and our nature as human beings? Stay tuned for the next post in "The Data Revolution Series"!

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