Digital and Disembodied

New kinds of personhood in the age of Facebook

Provocative questions in articles such as “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (Nicholas Carr in the July/August 2008 issue of The Atlantic) and “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” (Stephen Marche in the May 2012 issue of The Atlantic) ask us to consider the potential hazards of a wholesale adoption of such technologies without attempting to understand their impact on our thinking, creativity and behaviour. The digitization of our culture and lives has inspired a number of important books, blogs and articles in the last few years, examining the effects of this transition on the self and society. For some, like Clay Shirky, author of Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, the digital revolution as it is evolving represents an opportunity to harness the collaborative spirit of humans and put it to positive, productive use. For others, such as Jaron Lanier, in You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, it threatens to undermine our appreciation of the deep meaning of personhood.

Enter into the conversation Nora Young, host of CBC Radio’s technology and culture program, Spark, with her hopeful first book, The Virtual Self: How Our Digital Lives Are Altering the World Around Us. The book explores the increasingly popular practice of self-tracking, a trend Young first took serious note of around 2005 when social media technologies like Facebook and Twitter began to make it possible for ordinary people to share the intimate details of their daily activities. Now the ubiquity of mobile communication devices, the proliferation of apps for tracking and measuring just about any aspect of life (do you want to know how many minutes of every day you have devoted to checking email? There’s an app for that!), and the development of tools for visually representing the tracked data, have converged to create the perfect conditions for relentlessly scrutinizing the new digital self: “Whether that’s answering ‘What’s on your mind?’ on Facebook, or ‘checking in’ on Foursquare, we increasingly engage what I think of as auto-reportage, a continual ticker tape registering how and where you are, and what you’re doing.”

The vast amount of data generated from this auto-reportage—some of it intentionally created, some inadvertently—forms what Young sees as a digital picture, or “data map,” of ourselves. The “data-mapped self,” she states, “promises a picture that is observable, measurable, quantified, and persistent over time. It is a ‘me’ I can point to, a ‘me’ with graphics.” Young is really indicating nothing less than a complete reimagining of the me, of personhood, of what constitutes the self.

Is the self merely an accumulation of digital bits whose meaning can be understood through bar charts and line graphs? Or is it something less tangible, and less quantifiable? Is the objectified self that is slickly defined by data sets more real or valid than the one cobbled together over time through reflection and subjective experience? If, as Young says, humans “create narratives about who we are in order to communicate to ourselves, and to others, what matters to us,” can numbers and statistics truly tell the story of who we are, and what we care most about?

Perhaps an even more pressing question is, why are we so determined to track our every moment and movement? The technology makes it possible to do so, but what is the motivation? Young attributes the drive to self-track, in part, to the sense of disembodiment that attends digital culture and alters our relationship to the physical realities of time and space. To illustrate this condition, she points to the all-too-familiar example of observing someone walking down the street, talking on a cellphone, completely unmindful of the surrounding environment, oddly inhabiting “a kind of third, digital disembodied place.”

Daily, I witness this digital, disembodied place Young speaks of in the hallways, cafeterias and classrooms of the college where I teach. Groups of students may gather in one physical location, but glued to their devices, posting status updates and endlessly texting, they are isolated in their own digital bubbles. The intrusion of this digital, disembodied place into the learning environment presents an overwhelming challenge to educators trying to encourage their students to focus their fragmented attention on a real-time task before them.

Self-tracking, then, which Young points out is often associated with monitoring aspects of the physical body (fitness level, weight, body fat percentage, food consumption), may be appealing precisely because it allows the individual to re-inhabit, at least superficially, the vacated physical self and to “document the self [back] into being.”

In another way, the self-tracking trend may be explained as a further symptom of a culture steeped in individualism and compulsively drawn to new methods for self-improvement. Young notes that, especially in western culture, it is in our nature and our history (Benjamin Franklin figures prominently in The Virtual Self as an early, albeit analog, self-tracker) to document the details of our lives in order to better understand our behaviour and proclivities, and to seek ways to constantly improve our well-being and productivity. Self-tracking, then, may be viewed as “the latest manifestation of the fundamentally modern, Western, individualist project, taken to its logical, digitally powered conclusion.”

The belief in the individual as having primary importance may have been with us for centuries, but surely more recently we have taken the focus on the me to a whole new and troublesome level. The notion of self as object, or project, to be incessantly corrected, shaped, upgraded and exhibited to others, especially through digital platforms like Facebook, indicates the rampant narcissism of our current age, and particularly of those for whom social media technologies have been the dominant mode of self-expression for the better part of their young lives.

Young remains optimistic about self-tracking and the potentially beneficial uses of our data, particularly in the aggregate, but she is not oblivious to the more disturbing implications of documenting the self, especially when taken to its extreme:

What will it mean to live in such a way that we won’t, as it were, have private space away from ourselves? Going about your daily life might become an exercise in performing to expectations. It changes the nature of human agency if I am not just behaving, but responding to an ideal image that I now must measure up to.

Young’s concern about the objectified, performative digital self is echoed by Jaron Lanier, in You Are Not a Gadget, when he worries that “we are beginning to design ourselves to suit digital models of us,” and that the result is a “leaching of empathy and humanity in the process.” Nowhere, perhaps, is this redesigning of self more evident than among the so-called millennial population, a generation that has grown up with digital technology and a very different sense of self in the world.

As a college educator, I spend a great deal of time with 18-year-olds, trying to find ways to engage their interest in learning and understand their perspectives on themselves, their contemporaries and their environments. I teach writing, and my courses require that my students reflect on and respond to a variety of issues and arguments, from the debate over sex-segregated schools to the matter of rising tuition fees and student debt, to the question of animal rights.

The real challenge, though, is finding any topic to which they can sufficiently and meaningfully connect in order to form a response that demonstrates a measure of critical thought. For a generation of youth considered by some as more socially and civically engaged than previous generations, supposedly by virtue of the technologies available to them, these young people have surprisingly little to contribute to important conversations of the day. They do not view themselves, as we might wish, as citizens of a global community or possible agents of change. Too easily bored, if a topic under discussion in the classroom does not relate to their specific, individual needs and interests (often difficult to ascertain), they refuse to expend the mental energy required to participate, and instead retreat into their digital bubbles with their laptops and smart phones.

Frustratingly, I realize that what does motivate and interest my students is perhaps another example of the trend to self-track: grades. In education today, the grade report, not the acquisition of knowledge or skills, is paramount. In much the same way that a self-tracker might diligently observe his or her daily dietary fibre intake, a student will scrutinize grades, unwisely viewing the letters or numbers as the sole indicators of success or failure in a course or program. As Young says, “our self-tracking is really about data, and number-crunching, not about exploring the intimacies of subjective experience.” The educational experience for students, like much else, becomes an act of number-crunching, rather than an appreciation of the often intangible, rich, subjective experiences of learning.

My students’ indifference to broader social, political, economic and environmental issues exemplifies Lanier’s fear of a loss of empathy, and his concern that a “new generation has come of age with a reduced expectation of what a person can be, and of who each person might become.” The self, or me, that my students point to on their data map is not the civic-minded hopeful of the future; rather, it is the one represented on the grade report, or the virtual one carefully crafted and presented in photos and status updates on Facebook and elsewhere.

The isolation and disengagement resulting from the disembodiment by our digital culture, the compulsive tracking of whereabouts, activities and feelings (in 140 characters or less, mind you), and the privileging of the idealized self above all else, make Young’s optimism for self-tracking and her call for what she terms “data activism” seem, sadly, unrealistic.

The second part of The Virtual Self considers the ways in which we might use, to our collective advantage, our data—that which we choose to create and share, as well as that which we unintentionally produce simply by interacting with our digital technologies (think of Amazon’s recommendations, or Facebook’s targeted ads). Urban planning, public transportation, medical research, tourism and marketing are all areas that might benefit from access to our information. While Young strongly emphasizes the need for more research into the safe sharing of personal data and more clearly defined laws governing the ownership and handling of that data, she is clearly enthusiastic about what the stories our aggregate numbers, used in an anonymous fashion, can tell us about ourselves and our preferences: “While privacy is obviously important, what excites me is the potential for us to opt in to using our self-tracking data for the social good.” She suggests that “each of us can be data activists in the project to build smarter cities and better communities.”

The building of smarter cities and better communities through the ethical sharing, collection and interpretation of our data is, unquestionably, a worthy goal. The challenge to Young’s vision, besides navigating the murky waters of privacy and intellectual property rights, may be convincing the very people who are pursuing the self-tracking trend to care enough about how, where and why their data is used. Unfortunately, there is something of a contradiction in Young’s thinking.

It is problematic to suggest that those most immersed in our digital culture—the ones who are producing the most data, but who are also potentially the most tuned into their modern, western “individualist projects”—can find meaning in the idea of community and data activism in the name of “social good.” For the digital self, existing in a disembodied place, as in the case of so many of my students, for example, community is a slippery notion, and not necessarily one that resonates as a priority. Understanding and valuing community requires imagination, curiosity, willingness and above all, empathy—qualities these days that are often, alarmingly, in short supply.

In spite of all my caveats, The Virtual Self is a significant contribution to a growing body of writing on the impact of digitization on our lives and our relationships, to others and, perhaps most importantly, to ourselves. It reminds us that we must not be negligent of the power of our digital tools, and that we need to think through carefully how we may be most advantageously represented by our data.

Finally, Young’s book warns us not to be drawn completely away from our physical selves and from our human communities as we inevitably progress down the digital path. As she notes, “the data-mapped life is a way of giving ourselves a certain coherence, a kind of constancy, but it’s not the coherence you can get from a life lived in community, building a collective sense of meaning.”