Tuesday, 8 May 2012

The Virtual Self

The Virtual Self: How Our Digital Lives Are Altering the World Around UsThe Virtual Self: How Our Digital Lives Are Altering the World Around Us by Nora Young
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you are reading this review via Twitter or Goodreads, you may understand what it feels like to be at least a little bit addicted to the virtual world. Existing without a physical place means ideas can be exchanged at the speed of light and participation is democratic.

We are compelled to compulsively record ourselves online. Nora Young comments that the “pattern of our data seems to carry an explanatory power, a sense that life isn’t random...that, over time, the trivial acts of our mundane daily life shape a picture of who we are” (48).

The Virtual Self treats the creation of data as pleasure, art and philosophy (48). I had been expecting from this book a doomsday scenario akin to the one described in Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows. Instead, The Virtual Self gives practical information on our digital culture. The book describes how we generate personal data on-line and how this data can be used for positive means, such as self-improvement, and creating better societies and cities. The book also flags areas where this data can be misused: disengagement from the body, lack of privacy, skewed stats, bias, and profit.

By reading this book, I gained a better understanding of how the digital world works and have found the book to be prescient: When I listen to the news, I often hear the issues identified in this book being raised as concerns in the media. The book is peppered with modern-day interviews and the ideas of McLuhan, Foucault and Clay Shirky, among others.

The Virtual Self: How Our Digital Lives Are Altering the World around Us contains topics that we all should be interested in, but I’m not sure how much people are concerned with the “digital doppelgänger” they are creating. In fact, I expect circumstances and technology to change so quickly that the ideas in this book may soon become dated. As well, Young seemed to repeat herself at times. I felt that I didn’t learn anything radically new, but perhaps that’s the point: We so enjoy using digital tools that we tend to not pay attention to what is being done with the data we produce. In this book, there is no apocalyptic prophesy—which would probably attract more readers—but realistic, rational fact that’s mostly positive in nature.

As I was reading, I often asked myself, how can the ideas from this book be applied to my life, especially in terms of education? After reading the line, “[w]hen information is no longer scarce, institutions change and social norms change with them” (135), I instantly thought of how quickly we’ve accepted people speaking in public on their cell phones. We used to ban electronic devices from school, for goodness sake. Now my school board has launched a BYOD (Bring Your Own Devices) policy to be able to keep up with rapidly changing technology.

After finishing the book, I started to wonder, what subtle changes will the future bring that will radically change the way we live?

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