The Virtual Self (book review)
published in The Peak (Simon Fraser University’s Student Newspaper)
September 17, 2012
The Virtual Self leaves us wondering
Nora Young’s latest book may be better left on the shelf.
Nora Young, the lively host of CBC Radio’s The Spark, published her first book in April of this year, which explores the impact our digital activities have on our life. The Virtual Self: How Our Digital Lives Are Altering the World Around Us has received a lot of buzz in social media, and as a student of communications, I decided to check it out.
Unfortunately, I never finished the book. My main issues were her continual repetition, the lack of big-picture implications, and the general structure of the book. The tone and writing style is very conversational and accessible, much like The Spark, but my current frame of mind in academia left me craving something more. I wanted stronger correlations, sources cited (or even just footnotes), and more in-depth analysis of the consequences.
At the end of the first chapter, Nora poses all the questions that have been bugging me so far: why we do this, what are the consequences, how does this change our relationships, etc. And then she performs the cardinal sin of essays: she doesn’t answer the questions she posed. I understand that this is a tactic used to further engage readers, to dangle the carrot so that we keep reading. However, in my opinion, if you’re still dangling these carrot-ledes at 30 pages into a 200-page book, something is wrong. By the end of the first chapter, readers should have a clear view of what the scope of the book is about, what the current situation is, and why it is important. The remainder of the book should build on this foundation. So, in the hopes that Young was building a foundation (albeit slow and painfully) I continued to read.
My criticism of repetition and structural organization of the book go hand-in-hand, and sometimes it was the colloquial tone that attributed to the repetition. However, this doesn’t excuse the fact that the book has little direction. Young spends the first half of the book talking about self-tracking and how we do this, and some of the obvious whys, but doesn’t go much deeper. At one point, I actually wrote in the margin (in pencil that I erased since it was a library book), “So what?”
I admit that a little over halfway through the book I stopped paying a great deal of attention. I flipped through the next few chapters absent-mindedly.
Throughout the book, Young brings up (in passing) a number of key phrases, including “life-caching,” “the Quantified Self,” “spime,” “feedback loop,” “stats-driven objectified activities,” “the selling of our information/demographics,” and “surveillance of self,” among others. To have all of these concepts in a 200-page book is incredibly ambitious, but if you never actually define them properly or go into in-depth analysis, you can easily just name-drop them all in.
The Virtual Self isn’t completely terrible. While Nora does have some general suggestions for us as users and as a society, the book left a lot to be desired in my mind. However, if you are interested in reading The Virtual Self, don’t be deterred on my account. I think the accessibility of the writing is a strong selling point, especially if the intended reader is not heavily knowledgeable in the digital world, media, and communication.