Today we continue our chat with CBC Spark host Nora Young about her book The Virtual Self: How Our Digital Lives Are Altering the World Around Us. If you missed part one yesterday, go ahead and check that out. Otherwise, read on:
In your book, you also touch on copyright issues. Content owners are cracking down on privacy yet individuals have to accept terms of service agreements without any input. Is there an imbalance forming between corporate and individual rights?
In terms of service agreements in particular, I spoke to Ian Kerr at the University of Ottawa about some of the issues that come out of this and it’s mostly his observation that we have this standard form contract where you click “I agree.” Obviously it’s not practical for you to negotiate your own separate contract between you and Facebook, there’s a reason for why we have these things, and yet when we’re dealing with our data, this is really quite new.
If we had been born digital and none of those external things like terms of service agreements were in existence, we probably wouldn’t be thinking about negotiating those relationships in the way that we currently do. Again, one of the things that people who know a lot more about this stuff than I do (lawyers and so forth) are thinking about whether we need something like a data bill of rights or whether we need to think in terms of ownership of data and be more rigorous in the governance of who can do what with it.
Obviously in Canada we’re lucky enough to have organizations such as the Office of the Privacy Commissioner who are writing those questions. It seems pretty clear that if we’re going into a situation where theoretically it’s starting to look like our lives are being captured, do we really want to be relying just on these individual terms of service agreements or maybe what we want to say is that we’re the people who have the data, the data belongs to us and we decide when we want to lend it out and make it available to other third parties.
I consider it a completely fair exchange to be on Facebook for free and the quid pro quo is that they get to use my preferences and so on to sell me advertising. That might be a completely legitimate decision for me to make. But right now, what seems to be happening is that we have all of this personal data that we’re creating that’s kind of separated into all these different companies with which we have a relationship, which are governed by these terms of service agreements that are difficult to understand. They don’t really give us the power to control our data or bring it all together in one place. As we start thinking about whether this information has value, maybe we need to recalibrate that relationship.
We’re sharing more on social networks than ever before, yet we also get upset when those businesses use our info in ways we might not like. Are we more or less private than we’ve ever been?
That’s a great question. I don’t know. In some respects we’re less private, but I also feel that for many of us, our online lives have really become less disclosing in a sincere way and more about managing “Brand You.” Our personal profiles online often don’t seem super-personal, they often seem like if we had hired individual marketing departments. It’s what they would be coming up with to display ourselves to the world. I don’t know if we’re really revealing more of who we really are online. We’re revealing a certain kind of snapshot of who we are.
When we use these products and services we’re encouraged to reveal ourselves in a particular type of way. When you use Facebook, you’re encouraged to define who you are in virtue of things like the music that you like and the TV shows you watch and where you went to school and what your job is, which presents a certain picture of you – and most of all, you as a consumer – but it certainly doesn’t depict all of who you are.
One of the things I think is worth exploring is how do we pick the tools that we use to reveal what we really want to share about ourselves? Maybe there are platforms and tools that are more flexible than what we currently have and give us greater control over what we want to reveal and how much we want to reveal about ourselves and don’t limit us in ways that a lot of social networking tools do.
The idea of privacy that has really been at least challenged in recent years is itself a historical contingent. The idea of the private individual is a kind of concept of an individual psyche that is itself a relatively recent historical invention. It’s easy if you lived through it to see that there’s some sort of sea change that’s happened – before we used to be private and now we’re public – but really over the course of history it’s always been kind of fluid, what’s considered to be the boundaries of what’s private and public.
I was just reading about the invention of central heating and when that became more available to working class and middle class environments, it suddenly meant that people could have way more privacy in their homes because if every room in a house is freezing cold except for the room where the fireplace is, you’re going to be spending more and more time together. There are a lot of historically contingent things that change our idea of private and public space. I tend to be more forgiving for where we are now because of that.
When I lived in China I found there was much less privacy, just because there were so many people. When people go online they’re joining a population of billions, so might privacy be proportionate to the size of the group you’re in?
It’s an interesting thought. Sometimes the experience of using Twitter gives you this sense that you’re this one tiny voice. You do get the feeling of anonymity even though you’re not anonymous, but there’s so many millions of voices everywhere and it’s so open that you can have that feeling of being free to say whatever you want without consequence because it’s that sort of anonymity through obscurity. But we know that’s actually illusory – your tweets are public. When more people were doing things like blogging as opposed to all these social media things, they had a different sense of what they were revealing and weren’t revealing and how public they chose to be online. It was kind of a big decision.
I was speaking to a blogger who writes a blog now that’s not controversial and had never really been controversial, but she was telling me that when she first started, it was a big thing for her to be anonymous because that idea of being that revealing was such a new thing. For many bloggers it still is. To what extent are you prepared to publicly identify as this person? Somehow in these other worlds and communities where there’s just this huge amount of data flowing, we don’t always have that clear of a sense of owning the information we’re putting out there just because there’s so much of it.
Among your conclusions is the suggestion that we shouldn’t become slaves to the data we’re creating. Can you expand on that?
This information can be useful. It can be useful in the aggregate and it can also be the kind of thing that gives us personal insight. But we have to remember that it doesn’t show the whole picture. In particular, what I kind of worry about is the reduction of the body to a set of performative statistics where we don’t really take seriously the kind of thing that self-tracking can’t capture. There’s a lot about how your body is feeling and what your body is telling you about how you’re living your life that can’t really be captured by that type of data.
What worries me is if we keep reducing everything to what digital does well, what happens to the stuff that digital doesn’t do well? We talked about how Facebook encourages you to come up with lists of things you like, well in part that’s the sort of thing that digital does very well. But life is not all about lists, there’s a lot more to introspection and feeling that can’t be captured in that kind of way.
I’m not the only one who thinks this, but the way in which we’re starting to reduce memory to what is recorded is worrisome. There’s more to having a memory than the thing that you captured on your blog or in your data set or the picture you took with your cellphone camera. I worry that we’re losing the distinction between remembering and recording. As we capture more and more of what goes on around us, I think we risk losing that distinction.
What’s the benefit of remembering something the way that it didn’t happen?
I talked to one guy in the book, Victor Meyer Schlumberger, who talks a lot about the subjectivity of human memory. That to me is really interesting. I talked earlier about how we want to create a narrative out of our lives and there’s a certain narrative that emerges out of statistics and data. But I also think part of what it means to make sense of your life is really bound up with the way memory changes. When I think back to something that happened when I was 28, the way I remember it is very different now than it was at the time. It’s not just because time has passed and I don’t remember it as clearly, it’s because who I am is different.
How I remember that and how I shape the story of my life over time, that’s part of how I become a more interesting human being. It’s not in simply reviewing the tapes, as it were. The events that happened when I was 28 are different because of something that happened when I was 35. That subjective layer is something that digital doesn’t capture. That’s fine as long we remember we’re not capturing it.
So it can be something that seems horrible at the time, but as the years go by you might realize it was the best thing that ever happened to you?
Yeah, exactly. It’s that question of what does an event mean? What an event means independent of the context or passage of time, that changes in a way that looking at the raw data can’t capture.