Nora Young: Plugged In

Tech expert on the relationship between our virtual and physical selves.

You reach for your smart phone immediately upon waking. The Sleep Analyzer app recorded 35 “disturbances,” meaning you moved around a lot last night. You ponder the reasons while you fry two eggs, butter a slice of toast, Instagram it and record it on Calorie Tracker.

A half-naked stranger emerges from the bathroom. Oh, right. That happened. You check your sexual analytics from the night before on iMakeLove because, hey, there’sĀ an app for that, too.

“We’re going through something incredibly disruptive that’s changing social norms,” says Nora Young, author of The Virtual Self: How Our Digital Lives Are Altering The World Around Us, which examines our obsession with “self-tracking” and how technology makes it increasingly automatic. The host of CBC Radio One’s technology show, Spark, speaks about your future on Sept. 28 and 29, as part of LitFest. In July, she broke from her European vacation to Skype with Avenue.

You say people are “drunk on numbers,” like analytics. Why?

We want things to be clear and certain, reducible and statistical. It’s kind of the overwhelming power of digital, which privileges numbers, things that can be kept in discreet ways. And, as we become more digital, we like what the computer likes. The mantra of business now is all about numbers and things that are clear and can be quantified, so things that can’t be quantified – like quality, like user-experience – risk falling off the table, not because they’re not important, but because they can’t be measured.

Why do you think Facebook launchedĀ Timeline and Google, Google+?

I think they’d like to be the home for people’s virtual selves. At least from a corporate point of view, a lot of this is about who is going to be the trusted repository of all of that information. From a business perspective, that’s very interesting because, on one hand, there’s money to be made in “them there data points,” but on the other hand, you have to be the trusted keeper of people’s data.

Do you fear other unintended consequences for our virtualselves?

I fear we’ll stop paying attention to those things that digital doesn’t capture very well. All those things about what it feels like to be an embodied person and communicate with somebody that can’t be measured in discreet data points – the more we value the data, the less we value the things that can’t be captured that way.

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