Four Pillars: The Power of Context

checkershadow illusionHave you ever seen Adelson’s Illusion?

The squares marked A and B are the same shade of grey.

I won’t spoil it for you by giving you the proof here. Instead, why don’t you go visit the original site and see for yourself? There are a number of really worthwhile illusions there. I first saw it maybe ten years ago. Like you, I’ve seen many such illusions in my time, but none of them has had the same impact as this one had. Some of you may not have seen it, so I thought I’d share it with you while musing about context.

I think context is the key differentiator for Web 2.0; whether you look at it from the viewpoint of Four Pillars: Publishing, Search, Fulfilment and Conversation, whether you’re one of those people really into the Semantic Web, whether you’re more of a Mashups person using GPS or other location-sensitive tools, whether you’re into deep dialogues and arguments about microformats or identity… it’s all about context.

Hold that thought for a minute and come for a tangential wander.

In the past, I’ve had my rants about e-mail, about spreadsheets and about presentation tools. Like with most other things, these have good uses and bad uses. For some reason, the bad uses seemed to proliferate. I like working with you so much that I’m going to copy your boss in to this conversation. I like working with you so much that I’m going to copy your boss in to this conversation and not tell you I’m doing it. I like spreadsheets and presentations so much I insist on reading them on my BlackBerry. I trust everyone so much that I’m going to keep online and offline copies of every version of every spreadsheet and presentation I’ve ever come near. I like you so much I’m going to show you a draft of something and then use something completely different at the meeting a day later. Recognise any of these?

Enterprise collaboration tools are by themselves fairly useless unless people actually want to collaborate, unless people want to share, unless people want to work together. E-mail and spreadsheets and presentation tools are by themselves not evil, but can be subverted into bad uses.

For many years I wondered why people did this, why people misused the tools. And I’ve only been able to come up with one logical explanation, one that fits with my belief that people are intrinsically good. You see, many of these tools came out during the 1970s and 1980s; during that time, many of the basic tenets of enterprise employment were being turned upside down; security of tenure went flying through the window; downsizing and rightsizing and wrongsizing were all the vogue; outsourcing and offshoring were being discovered; the war for talent had not yet begun.

Now the primary and secondary sectors had already been through all this, but not the tertiary sector. And within the tertiary sector, the term “knowledge worker” was just beginning to emerge. Maybe, just maybe, it was all a question of timing. Insecure people were learning that knowledge had power, while being presented with tools to protect, fortify, even submerge, that knowledge. Are they to be blamed for using the tools selfishly?

Okay, back to the context argument. Tools like e-mail and spreadsheets and presentations, because they were so individual and stand-alone, could be manipulated. And could be misinterpreted.

They did not come with context.

What we are seeing with Four Pillars tools, with Web 2.0 tools in general, is the very opposite:

  • The way that conversations persist allows context to be captured and shared, whether in IM or wikis or blogs
  • Modern tools for archival and retrieval, via the use of tags and non-hierarchical processes, allows context to be enriched
  • The availability of location specific information, of tags and microformats, of semantic web concepts, all coupled with better identity and authentication and permissioning, allows the enriched context to be made more relevant and timely

Context. Captured and shareable. Enriched and made available. At the right time, in the right place, to the right person.

I wish it were all that simple. Whenever I see the sheer power of the tools today, I also see the stupidities. Stupidities in the context of DRM and IPR and The Series Of Tubes and and and, which have the capacity to kill this goose before any golden eggs are laid.

4 thoughts on “Four Pillars: The Power of Context”

  1. Back when I was “in at the creation” of FXPAL in 1995 and we were also focussed on the “office of the future,” “context” was on everyone’s lips, usually embedded in the mantra, “Context is everything!” Unfortunately, most of the people who invoked the mantra felt that its invocation relieved them of the burden of semantics, a phenomenon we would see a few years later associated with the word “knowledge.” Socrates (by way of Plato) is still the only one who got it right about knowledge (in “Theaetetus”): However badly we may fail in our efforts to define the concept of knowledge, we are still the better for what we learn from our failures. I wish I could say the same about context!

    JP, do you remember the last time we were here? At that time you were not invoking context; and your mantra was, “The script is central!”

    My response was to assert that this mantra only had teeth to it if is was supported by dramatistic thinking. I then developed an example of applying such dramatistic thinking to introducing technology in a workplace setting:

    I think the problem is that IT conditions us to reduce everything to bits, but context is ultimately more about BEHAVIOR than about bits. Indeed, dramatistic analysis informs us of those subtleties of behavior that elude being “captured by bits” (and rendered “sharable”). Put another way, it is more important to grasp how context shapes our ACTIONS than to agonize over how it can be rendered as a RESOURCE.

    Speaking of action, by the way, I see that, in your “OTHER PEOPLE I READ” list, my name is still linked to my old Yahoo! site (and, according to just about anyone who contacts me, the URL no longer works). I put the new (Blogspot) URL in the form for this comment. Whatever may be automated about the management of your blog, you may have to TAKE ACTION to update the (now useless) hyperlink hanging on my name!

  2. Great illusion (both the image and the text. One of my fave blogs is “Mighty Illusions”: The ways our perception fails us can be quite disturbing.

    Context is almost everything, provenance of a message is often as interesting as the content and the medium itself can be the message, but loss of ownership and the origin of content can reap unexpected rewards. Ideas floated independently of the originator are most likely to receive the fairest of hearings.

    An image I hold in my head when people articulate a need for DRM and region codes is that of unemployed piano players smashing pianola machines. We all have to learn to let go more often and success is based upon being able to adapt when a business model breaks.

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