This Is Being Recorded… By You

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The art of self-tracking.

It was one thing to know where I was going. It was a totally different experience to know how far I had been, how much further I needed to go, what my expected time of arrival was, how long I had stopped for and what my average speed was. Most people just stare at the map of their GPS system and wait for the voice commands to bark out their next turn. I never tagged myself as an analytics jockey, but switching over to the trip data screen of my GPS turned the long drive into both a game and fascinating collection of data. The system was tracking my every move (and it was tracking me even when the car was idle). It wasn’t enough. All I could think of is just how cool it would be if I could upload that information and look at other road trips that I had taken to see some averages and cumulative data. What if I could share this information with friends and family? What if I could compare road trips… my mind went spinning.

I didn’t think anything of it.

On March 15th of this year, I found myself at the Van Halen concert in Montreal with a friend. As the lights dimmed and Eddie Van Halen‘s guitar started to wail, instead of the usual Zippo lighters raised fist-pumping high in the air, that flame was replaced by the glow of smartphones. Snapping pictures, capturing videos, texting friends, tweeting and updating our Facebook timelines. Instead of rocking out to ‘Running With The Devil’, the majority of people in the audience were recording, capturing and publishing the moment instead of soaking in the sweat of the rock n’ roll and raising a cold one with some friends.

What have we become?

George Orwell‘s 1984 painted a dystopian view of our society. Big Brother was watching and tracking our every move. Instead of becoming Winston Smith, each and every one of us has become our own, Big Brother. We track our own every move. We post tweets on Twitter, we check-in on Foursquare, we publish pictures of our daily lives on Facebook, upload videos to YouTube, and much more. Now, with the ubiquity of smartphones and mobile connectedness, it has never been easier to share with the world our each and every move (look no further than Facebook’s one billion dollar acquisition of Instagram – a social network for mobile photography). And we’re publishing our lives. All of the time. In fact, more and more with each and every passing day. It’s a topic that has fascinated Nora Young for a long while. The founding host and producer of CBC‘s Definitely Not The Opera and the current host of Spark (a radio show and podcast about the intersection of technology and culture) spent this past year digging deeper into self-tracking and what this means about our society and who we are. The culmination of her work is the recently published book, The Virtual Self – How Our Digital Lives Are Altering the World Around Us (McClelland & Stewart – 2012).

The virtual self.

“As with most things about technology, I am pretty ambivalent about it,” said Young via Skype last week. “I think there are interesting and healthy things about all of this self-tracking, and there is also a danger of losing touch with the physical and grounded reality. At the same time, I also think that these tools can be really helpful and can shed a lot of light on things for us. As human beings, we seek sharing and storytelling. We don’t want to think that our lives are just one damn thing after another. We want to create a sense of narrative. I think a lot of this self-tracking comes out of a desire to create a story for ourselves.”

The Klout effect.

The challenge with this “story” is that it is being done in public. For all to see. We’re not just talking about family, friends and people from high school that we swore we never wanted to see again (but still wind up creeping on their Facebook profiles every so often to see if they got fat or not), but it’s also companies who are able to see, hear and know things about us that they could have never known before. Klout is an online platform designed to allocate an actual ranking to individuals as a kind of social scoring system. Klout scores are becoming a powerful tool for marketers to both identify and connect with evangelists as a form of influencer marketing. In the end, all of this self-tracking becomes like an onion being peeled (they are many layers to it). The more we post and publish, the more our friends and family are doing the same and the more brands are watching and capturing it all. Ultimately, you could be doing very little to no self-tracking but if your family and friends are, then your life is still being shared (whether you like it or not).

“The technology that we use directs us to tell a story in a certain way,” continues Young. “If you’re on Facebook, the story that it encourages you to tell about yourself is the movies that you like or the products that you identify with. It encourages you to make these kinds of lists – partly because that’s good for marketing reasons and partly because technology is good at helping us to make lists. The danger is that you start to think of yourself and identify with yourself and others) in those terms. I am a person who likes X, Y and Z, but we’re a lot more than just the pop culture products that we identify with.”

Have become schizophrenic?

This fascinating moment in time could well become an indictment as to just how schizophrenic society can be. On one hand, we shrill when channels like Facebook make nuanced changes to their terms and service for fear that it will breach our privacy, but on the other hand we are constantly and willfully publishing our each and every move for the world to see in text, images, audio and video. It turns out that our virtual selves are just as confused and complicated as our physical selves.

What’s your take?

The above post is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business – Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here:

You can listen to my conversation with Nora Young in its entirety in the upcoming episode of Six Pixels of Separation – The Twist Image Podcast (which will be published this coming Sunday).


  1. This is something I see all the time, and honestly, I’m not sure it’s completely new. I think many of us have the “need” to be seen and heard. We want to be noticed, whether it’s in school or at work, or even in public. We exhibit this by our actions, our dress, and our chest thumping. And yet we also want to be left alone. On our terms. It’s all on our terms.
    I think when I look back to my time in jr. hi and high school in the 70s, I can see this happening, both with myself and others.
    What IS new is that we all suddenly have the means to publish to a wider audience. We are all reviewers and critics of everything from culture to society. We all have the ability to say, “I’m drinking coffee”, in hopes of getting a reaction…a comment…a simple “like”. Things like that, along with retweets, @replies, blog comments, are a form of validation, much akin to being told, “Hey, you like nice”. Or the pleasure we get when someone genuinely laughs at a joke we tell.
    Now, we can get that validation on a wider scale, and we seek it regularly. But again, we want it on our terms. We somehow think that we can filter who sees things and who doesn’t. And we don’t want Big Brother Facebook all up in our grill.
    None of this makes sense when you suss it out with logic, but it’s how we think. Not all of us have learned how to deal with this yet.

  2. I never made the connection between the dystopian 1984 “Big Brother is watching” stuff, because you always think it’ll come from outside . . . but you’re right – we’re doing it to ourselves right now. And all anyone has to do is watch.

  3. 2 things come to mind:
    – Orwell said we would be enslaved by Government and/or Industry; it was Huxley (in Brave New World) who predicted that we would be enslaved by what we love (amused to death). I find Huxley’s vision more and more apt.
    – My strong hunch is that the people who care about their privacy, are not the same people who tweet and share the minutia of their daily lives! It seems that Privacy Concerns are very low on the radar of twentysomethings… This is just an observation, based on having spoken with many people about Facebook’s habit of repeatedly “upgrading” the privacy options (and erasing everyone’s previous settings each time, thereby exposing people who do not want their profile to be public, to the public). People of my generation find this to be a latant violation of our trust; twentysomethings and teenagers genuinely don’t seem to mind or even care!

  4. It started when we stopped sitting around the proverbial camp fire and instead spent evenings watching television instead of having conversations. That isolation grew until ways
    to “connect” were invented. When you see those iPhones recording at a concert – it’s human beings new way to say, “See Me. Respond to Me.”
    It’s sad. And probably will not end well.

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