Podcast: Nora Young on the Digital and the Sacred (two parts)

Nora Young, host of CBC's Spark, and author of The Virtual Self (McClelland & Stewart).The act of protecting something that doesn’t involve performance or recording is really important.”

Nora Young is a writer-broadcaster, producer, and documentary-maker. She was the founding host and producer of “Definitely Not the Opera” and currently hosts CBC’s national radio show “Spark.” She is fascinated with the intersection of technology and culture: how changing technology affects the way we see ourselves, and each other.

Follow Nora Young: NoraYoung.ca | @nora3000 | Spark | The Sniffer

The Virtual Self, by Nora Young (McClleland & Stewart).Young has written an incredible book that’s right up my alley, called The Virtual Self: How Our Digital Lives Are Altering the World Around Us (McClelland & Stewart). In it, she explores the impact of data mapping/self-tracking/life-caching—the virtual information we generate about ourselves, our own lives, our communities, and our government. Where we go, what we do, how we feel. The book then looks at the challenges around how we share that data—from Facebook status updates to Google Navigator—with an eye turned toward how we might build more responsive communities and governments. And while some would say that the privacy wars are over—and that we’ve lost—Young argues that the technologies and conversations are still in their early days, and that it’s citizens, not technocrats, who should lead the next leg of discussions over how and when our data is used.

Podcast, part one: (originally appeared at 49thShelf.com)

The impulse to self-track is not a new one. But with the advent of digital technologies—cheap devices, open-ended storage space and the ability to widely share our data—it would appear as if the digital realm has taken over. But Nora Young argues that there’s still a lot of ground to cover if we’re to take our banal and trivial information and translate it into creating better communities. She’s optimistic.

Nora and I chat/muse about the following:

  • the difference between self-tracking (personal accounting) and self-scrutiny (personal reflection)
  • working with data for purposes beyond target marketing
  • how the fringe activity of life-caching has become an almost unconscious daily activity
  • the development of critically-minded tools
  • how trivial information can be intelligently shared
  • how tools create opportunities for us to reground ourselves in the physical realm


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Podcast, part two: (Young agrees to chat longer and we get a little philosophical.)

On an app or program that changed the way she looked at data: “If [Rescue Time] knows all this stuff about my computer use, then digital changes things in more ways than just making it easy for us to capture and store [data], it’s inherent in the nature of using devices that they know, in quotation marks, how they’re being used. . . . But it also has this curiously objectifying character where you start to feel a little bit like a hamster on a wheel, measuring up to some sort of performance metric that you set for yourself, which somehow felt a little bit more driven than just having goals, it felt more submissive in some way. So for all those reasons, I think that [realization] was a watershed moment for me.”

On the usefulness of social data: “Even though Twitter is—at least, at this point—wildly unrepresentative of the population as a whole, it still serves a valuable role in terms of distributing information quickly and giving us rough-and-ready tools for quick information gathering.”

On the potential for data to to affect personal growth: “I think this is important, not being punitive about [collecting data], not being so performance-oriented, but saying, ‘I’m going to use this as an exercise in insight, I’m just going to see what emerges from the data and what that can tell me about who I am.’ I think we so often approach these things in a gold star performative kind of way, but I think it’s just from disinterestedingly collecting and looking at the data that what you might want to change about your life emerges.”

On digital text and the ability to engage with other readers via social reading apps: “I’m very connected to the solitary experience of reading. I think we have to ask ourselves, ‘Are we doing these things because the technology is good at it, or because we really want to do it?’ It’s worth asking the question. What I do know is that the more deeply connected we become to our digital technologies, the more unusual it feels to be without them.”

On tuning out: “There’s a space for the spiritual that needs to be protected, and for that grounded space of really just listening to your body. . . . I’m not sure that we’re always going to be able to do that, actually. . . . Maybe it’s too early to say. Are we in this shock mode, the equivalent of right after the Gutenberg Revolution where everyone was going kablooie, everything that we knew about how we’re organizing things has changed, and that we’ll recover and say, ‘OK, remember that time in the early twenty-teens when everyone was monitoring and tracking everything?’ Will we recover from that? I don’t know.”


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People Have to Work to Love Their Children: Katrina Onstad (podcast)

“It happens all the time. People have to work to love their children. I think it’s a myth that it’s always immediate.”—Katrina Onstad on her latest novel, Everybody Has Everything

Everybody Has Everything, by Katrina OnstadElevator pitch: An urban couple, Ana and James, who do not have children of their own (for reasons revealed in the book’s opening), become the guardians of a two-year-old boy, Finn, in the aftermath of an accident, in which one of Finn’s parents dies and the other remains in a coma.

The crisis reveals cracks in the intimate relationship between Ana and James, and confronts themes of loss, doubt, and questions of longing, while exploring commentary around notions of modern/flexible parenting, nature vs. nurture, the struggle for some to feel the care they offer their loved ones, and the author’s own “generational obsessions” with what people do to fill the holes of absent parents, having herself grown up in the divorce generation of the 70s.

Onstad’s novel is ultimately a story about fulfillment, wholeness, and the illusion we’re told to strive for along the path of middle class acquisition—job, partner, children—that everybody can have everything. (You may have seen this response in The Atlantic to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” If so, you’ll particularly enjoy my chat with Onstad.)

I met with Onstad in the downtown Toronto offices of McClelland & Stewart Doubleday Canada Publishing Group. When I arrived, Onstad was already waiting in the lobby. I noted her book perched at reception alongside a children’s picture book. “Can you imagine Everybody Has Everything as a board book?”

We went from there . . .

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Katrina Onstad, author of Everybody Has EverythingAbout Katrina Onstad: Onstad’s second novel, Everybody Has Everything, came out in Canada in May, 2012 (McClelland & Stewart) and will be released by Grand Central in the US in 2013. Her first novel, How Happy to Be, was met with critical acclaim in 2006.

Katrina is also a freelance writer whose work on culture high and low appears in publications including The New York Times Magazine, The Guardian, and Elle. Katrina has a column in the “Saturday Style” section of the national paper The Globe and Mail and is a regular contributor to Toronto Life magazine. At CBC.ca, she was head film critic and an on-line arts producer.

Born and raised in Vancouver, B.C., Katrina has an English degree from McGill and a Master’s from University of Toronto. She lives in Toronto with her family.