It used to be that getting in touch with yourself was a description of meditation, but now you can do it with computer apps. Nora Young, host of the CBC radio One show Spark recently introduced a Dundas audience to the concept of online ‘self tracking.’

Young was invited to deliver a lecture and promote her new book The Virtual Self: How Our Digital Lives Are Altering The World Around Us, a work that examines the impact of the vast amounts of virtual data we are starting to generate about ourselves and our everyday lives via our online activity.

Young describes self-tracking as an increasingly popular practice in which individuals electronically “track” where they’re going, what they’re doing, and how they spend their time. The use of self-tracking programs, says Young, is becoming “more and more normal.”

Examples of programs that develop digital data corresponding to our everyday lives that are now achieving widespread use include:

  • Rescuetime, a “personal-analytics service” or productivity tool that monitors online activity and provides weekly e-mails with detailed breakdowns of productive and unproductive internet use.
  • Foursquare, a geographic check-in device used by over 15 million people whereby “users note their locations with a mobile phone and can find out where friends are.”
  • Fit Bit, a physical tracking device that is “with you every step of the day” and that “shows your real-time activity stats so you know how close you are to your goals.”
  • Zeo, a sleep program that tracks your sleep stages via a digital headband during the night and “sends them wirelessly to your smartphone.”
  • Mint, a personal finance service with over 6 million users that allows people to track their spending and budgets, and helps people “monitor their online banking accounts.”

There are, of course, obvious privacy and safety concerns associated with accruing these kinds of virtual data – user information and anonymity could be compromised by companies or governments who have access to that data and who might stand to gain from what it reveals.

The Virtual Self: How Our Digital Lives Are Altering the World Around Us

Recognizing and addressing these dangers, The Virtual Self stresses that user-generated information also has the “potential to create cities and communities that are more sustainable, more responsive, and more dynamic than ever before.” One example mentioned by Young of such potential is a system being developed by Google that incorporates vehicles’ GPS systems to create online traffic maps that could produce live feeds of data to help drivers avoid traffic and lower emissions in cities.

It is not hard to see why Nora Young believes that we are, as she puts it, at a “watershed moment” in terms of the directions in which these data-generating technologies will proceed. And according to the author, the time to face these challenges is now: “if we wrestle now with issues like privacy and data control,” remarked Young, “we can harness the power of that data.”

The event, which took place at the Dundas Carnegie Gallery, was co-hosted by Bryan Prince Booksellers and the Hamilton Public Library.

I am currently entering my third year at McMaster University as an Honours English Major; previously, I attended Victoria College in the University of Toronto. Considering my inquisitive tendencies and my delight in communicating to audiences, I can hardly feign surprise at having found myself in the enterprise of media work. In terms of writing, I abhor the boring and I delight in the dynamic; I try my best to correspond these principles into expression that is both clear and engaging. My areas of contribution to the Bay Observer span many topics and most notably focus on technology, health, art, culture, soccer, and local news.

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