The Age of Context

Internet technology continues to evolve and it seems we’re constantly flooded with too much information. Social media has been a great influencer in allowing the creation and sharing of information at a mass. Everyone is saying something, but what are they really saying..

Making  data more useful and understandable again, through technology, can augment our experience of the physical and intellectual spaces around us. “Context” can allow us to understand the plethora of information available and also facilitate pleasant experiences with our physical surroundings. Big Data can help us understand social trends and inexpensive mobile devices can provide context/information about the places we visit and the objects we touch and use.

Context itself can come in different shapes and forms. Context can be implicit or explicit, obvious or implied, bold or passive, dynamic or static. Users can interact with preexisting contextual clues or create and share their own contextual clues. For example online experiences like watching video can be improved by utilizing user-generated context. I currently work on an online service that recommends videos based on the user’s clicks: A user is presented with a web video player and by clicking certain buttons (pause, skip forward, skip back etc.,) I’m able to determine a user’s preferences. This user-generated context allows my team and I to determine the appropriate videos for that user.

In the ongoing “Internet of things”, devices that are aware of each other and their surroundings, context plays a key role . Physical devices and spaces can now provide contextual information about the services and/or resources they have to offer. I would like, for example, to walk into a restaurant and my mobile phone present me with a menu and best dishes, I would like to be traveling in Zambia and receive contextual information about the shops and public institutions I’m visiting — ratings, where to find critical services etc., I’d like to do all this and more cheaply as possible, refraining from depending on the internet, cellular networks or expensive infrastructure. In other words my cellphone (or smart watch) should be enough to enhance my life.

The Philosophy..
But ultimately why does all of this matter? Why should it matter to each of us? Personally the less we have to worry about, and the less we have to manually solve problems, the more intelligent we become and the more we further human progress. Humans created the alphabet to avoid painfully memorizing long stories/conversations when sharing or remembering information. Humans discovered and studied mathematics, and, for example, found multiplication as a shortcut to addition. Such shortcuts in history have advanced society and allowed for human experience to be enhanced. What other advances can we realize once we automate what in the past took much longer to do?

Certainly it’s true that the advancement of knowledge can also be used for wrong and destruction. It’s possible and has happened. However I choose to err on the side of hope. Newer ways to augment everyday experiences can create economic opportunities and lower the barrier to education. The physical objects around us can educate us, they can share information and do so without infrastructure. Such objects can give us the context that will enhance our experiences. I see this each year I travel back to the African continent, I also see this in Los Angeles. It’s globally applicable.

Much of my ongoing research deals with contextual devices and services that will hopefully augment our lives and further our progress.


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