Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Web watchers gather more and more information about us
You are being watched.
Complete strangers are gathering information on your movements, your interests, and what you buy.
That fundamental reality of the digital age is the focus of CBC Radio broadcaster Nora Young's first book.
The former Winnipeg resident, currently host of weekly digital-culture program Spark out of Toronto, has written a thoughtful and engaging examination of how we leave trails of data about ourselves every day.
Whenever you use your cellphone, especially if it's a "smart" phone such as a BlackBerry, you're revealing a little about yourself. Same with when you surf the web on your Mac or PC.
And there'll be a creeping advance in digital tracking as what's been called "the Internet of things" continues to grow.
The Internet of things is the connection of non-computer items such as refrigerators and bus stops to the Internet to record and transmit data.
That can be a good thing, recording data that can be used to better manage parts of our daily lives and public services, but it also means a little more opportunity for unseen parties to track what we're doing and where we're going.
Much of your "digital trail" is left "passively" -- that is to say, without you thinking about it and giving permission.
Your laptop might pick up a "cookie," for instance, when you visit a website.
Other times, you are actively and knowingly surrendering information to the cyberworld.
When you post a "status update" or click a "like" button on Facebook, for example, that's data someone might throw into a pile for market research.
There's usually nothing personal about it; your data is but a drop in a vast sea of ones and zeros.
Nevertheless, the watching is real and it raises serious concerns about privacy and information control.
For much of The Virtual Self, Young explores the phenomenon some have dubbed "personal metrics" but she prefers to call "self-tracking."
It's the practice of keeping a record of one's daily activities in particular respects, such as how far you walk or what you eat.
There's nothing new in keeping a daily log, as history is full of famous diarists and compulsive record-keepers. Benjamin Franklin, for example, tracked his own daily behaviour in an attempt to become more virtuous.
What's new is how people send data on their daily lives out into that amorphous data pool we call the Internet.
Young observes that modern self-tracking offers benefits to users, in both individual self-improvement and building a sense of community with people near and far.
She notes the Internet can connect us with people who share our interests, and we can learn about things that matter to us through their postings on Facebook and other sites.
Furthermore, she says, "we can learn about people we can't be physically near," and we can get a feel for what like-minded people are thinking about.
Though it's only, as she says, a "lightweight sense of connection," that aspect of self-tracking and online sharing is still unquestionably a good thing.
But remember: When you upload that data about your daily walking distances or television viewing or whatever, it becomes accessible to a whole lot of people.
Who uses that data and for what purposes are important issues, and Young closes with a chapter on how "data activists" can unite to see that it's employed for good more than bad.
"In this new information ecosystem, more can -- and will -- be known about us than ever before," she writes. "We can choose to do nothing about it, or we can claim that data as our own and actively engage with how it's used."
She believes that we can, together, see to it that our data gets used for our benefit as a society.
"We need to ask questions now about how that information ought to be used" and demand rules to ensure proper use, she declares.
Young seems optimistic that data activists can set things right. Perhaps a little too optimistic.
Wouldn't her data activists, after all, often be going up against very rich and powerful interests that tend to get their way?
And isn't it rather difficult to enforce rules in the modern-day Wild West that is the Internet?
The author's unfounded optimism aside, this book offers a lot of interesting ideas and intriguing questions.
Buy it with cash and you might not leave a digital trail.
Mike Stimpson is a Winnipeg writer and editor.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 14, 2012 J10
(1 of 23 articles for this week)