Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Big ideas in the Virtual World

Neil Wilson, founding director of the Ottawa Writers Festival, began this Sunday evening discussion by introducing Nora Young  of CBC Radio’s Spark, author of The Virtual Self , along with the event’s host Michael Bhardwaj of CBC radio,  who would lead the discussion as it dove into the rabbit hole of virtual worlds and the Internet. Neil appeared tentative toward the subject of a emerging technologies, describing it as hot topic in which he has little knowledge, but also suggesting that “even at 63, you can still learn.” It was a sentiment that rang true for many in the room, and certainly by the end of the evening we had received an awe-inspiring education as to what the future may hold in terms of self-tracking and connectivity.


As the discussion began, Knox Church Hall was suddenly filled with technological buzz words and phrases: “Virtual territory,” “self tracking,” “moral perfection,” “dynamic demographics,” and “digital haunting” to name a few. Having e-mail, Twitter and Facebook accounts, apparently, does not make one an expert on the evolving virtual world. It does, however, include you as a participant who is actively shaping the future of technology (Not a bad consolation, really.) And what might once have been viewed as extreme, narcissistic self-tracking (think status updates, group emails, tweeting about your lunch, relationship status reporting) has now, through the introduction of simple and engaging platforms, become main stream behaviour.


And through this discussion Nora and Michael continually returned to the why: Why do we self-track?

As Nora went over examples of self-trackers such as Feltron of Felton’s Annual Report – a report put out each year summarizing through images exactly how Feltron lives his life; the We Feel Fine project – a program that seeks out the statements beginning with “I feel” across weblogs such as blog posts or pages and collects the complete “I feel” sentences in one location, categorizing them by emotion; or Google’s Traffic View – with live feedback of users who agreed to be monitored as they drive, providing a ‘living map’ of the city and traffic congestions, there was one idea amongst these jaw-dropping examples that truly stood out. In our sharing, “There’s something core to humanity,” according to Nora. She doesn’t see it as narcissist, but rather, “as human beings there’s something about us that wants to create a narrative.”


Perhaps we want to tell a story . . . a story of our lives, a story of the world. Yet there’s a problem with this. Firstly, what is happening to our information? Is it being sold, harvested, manipulated? Most likely. But according to Nora, “This is the time we have the power to help shape it.” Regarding social media and online tools, “ultimately they’re just platforms.” The user has power to protest, and often times these agencies respond to those reactions. However, this takes a certain awareness and initiative. While Nora says that our engagement “Should be something we do with our eyes wide open, and not because we click the terms of agreement to services.” I cannot help thinking that despite this ideal behaviour, most of us inevitably click ‘Agree’ and move on.


Secondly, in the telling of our stories, what happens to that information? It is stored online, kept on your ‘timeline’ or perhaps some past webpage (with all the nooks and crannies on the internet, it’s not worth listing everything here. But feel free to visit 123People and look up your name), and what happens? For a novice in the computer world, it’s seemingly impossible to remove.


And then, of course, there is this wonderful idea Nora Young and host Michael Bhardwaj discussed, about connection. The internet with its pop-ups, feeds, and notifications, essentially demands “continuous partial attention.” We are focused on our screens, flipping page to page, chatting with friends and eating our lunches. This fragmentation in focus “Prevents us from relaxing, physically grounding ourselves into our body,”  which is in itself interesting, because in telling our stories and self-tracking, aren’t we trying to connect with ourselves?


Could it be that this virtual world is the reason we need to define ourselves online –because in the ‘real world’ we are not truly connecting?


There are big ideas happening within the virtual world, and big concerns about how this might evolve. I arrived feeling clued into the trends (Twitter and Facebook? No problem!), and left with an impression that we are on the tip of an iceberg, without a clear sense of what lies below. Listening to Nora Young explore the virtual world as discussed in her book was a fascination experience, and for those of us in the audience, most certainly for myself, an educating experience as well.