Keeping track of every bit of you

by Patrick Lejtenyi, BA'97

Author Nora Young hosts CBC Radio's Spark (Photo: Alyssa Bistonath)

Who cares about you? Who cares about what you eat, what you wear, what you buy, what you do and how often you do it? Besides your mom, lots of people, it turns out. And we as a society are increasingly willing to share every little detail of our lives with every person with an Internet connection, according to Nora Young, MA’90, the host of CBC Radio’s technology and culture show Spark and the author of The Virtual Self: How Our Digital Lives Are Altering the World Around Us.

Young’s new book examines the phenomenon of self-tracking: the systematic recording of often breathtakingly banal factoids about our daily lives, and the sharing of them online. How far you jogged this morning; how big your breakfast was; how many drinks you had after work; how much time you spent watching TV — no act is too obscure or unimportant for someone, somewhere to share it. And while this behaviour can be considered by some — okay, many — to be compulsive, narcissistic or even creepy, Young argues the urge to share our very personal details is not only increasingly common, but is in fact a habit we’ve had for centuries.

“The roots go back far in the Western tradition,” says Young. “As soon as we had clocks and calendars, we were getting into the habit of recording our actions.” When diary keeping took off in the 19th century, it was just an extension of a practice that went back to the Enlightenment, when the literate and the well-off would keep common books. In them went observations, names of callers, overhead witticisms — the quotidian output that doesn’t make it into history books.

Young, who self-tracked (poorly, she admits) while researching and writing the book, does acknowledge the modern urge to track almost everything can be “weird.” But she thinks that there is a deep impulse behind it. Posting our daily habits online, she says, “offers potential insight into ourselves, if used properly.” Her experience in self-tracking, for instance, revealed to her that there is a lot more to do with one’s desire to exercise, for instance, than a will to improve yourself. What you eat and how you sleep also play huge roles, so if she wasn’t feeling up for a trip to the gym, “I learned to be more patient about myself in that regard.”

Self-tracking, she points out, doesn’t just have to be about the self. It can have wider, nobler benefits. She mentions Japanese self-trackers who used personal Geiger counters to monitor local radiation levels following the March 2011 earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster, and an app that records where and when asthmatics have to puff on their inhaler —  data that can be used to keep tabs on the air quality in particular areas.

These examples provide evidence that “if we aggregate all that data, properly anonymized of course, we can use the information to make our communities more responsible and more sustainable,” says Young. The innocuous can reveal a lot.

But self-tracking also has its risks. There is “somewhat scary research” coming from the University of Texas on the potential of correlating information to “de-anonymize” data. “As we start to keep all these different accounts —  Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, etc. — the fear is that what we hope is anonymous may actually not be so.” How to ensure that our data remains anonymous is going to be “very important if we’re going to make use of this information in the aggregate,” she believes.

“Facebook doesn’t display information that you looked at your ex’s profile, but there’s no reason that they couldn’t,” she says. “If the services aren’t transparent, then there’s a real problem. We need a broader and more public discussion about data and what these companies are doing with it.”