Living in the Age of Context

July 2nd, 2014   •   no comments   

Shel Israel and Robert Scoble (courtesy of Thomas Hawk)

What are the greatest forces shaping our tech-enabled lives?

Give up? Well, why not ask social media “godfathers” Robert Scoble and Shel Israel? Authors of the legendary book Naked Conversations (aka the book which got me hooked on blogging), the two gentlemen got together with Mitch Joel on his podcast to talk about their recent book Age of Context.

Subtitled Mobile, Sensors, Data and the Future of Privacy, Scoble and Israel’s new book is predicated on the idea that five converging forces are changing the way we live, work, study and play. These forces have woven themselves tightly into our existence, changing our relationships with technology, society and contemporary culture.

The five forces are:

1) Mobile

There are now more cell phones than people on the planet. What’s more, most of these smartphones wield more computing power than supercomputers which once filled a room. Wearable computing devices like smart watches, Google glasses, and others are also growing fairly widespread.

Meanwhile, mobile data costs continue to plummet, while all kinds of apps mushroom like never before. Examples include services like Spotify which allow you to listen to music anytime, anywhere, using your mobile device.

2) Social Media

Yes, social media is no longer new media. It is now a daily component of the way we connect and communicate. Almost 1.5 billion people are on social networks like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Snapchat, Instagram and more. YouTube has become the second largest search engine after Google, and the social sharing of text, photos, audio and videos are now an essential part of our lives.

Businesses are also hopping on board. Many have social accounts while seeking ways to humanise themselves, build communities, and embrace storytelling – as opposed to selling – to build affinity and affection.

3) Data

The hottest idea in this space is big data, which is defined here as “a massive volume of both structured and unstructured data that is so large that it’s difficult to process using traditional database and software techniques.”

While the size of the Internet is exploding at an exponential rate, it’s the multiple little streams of data delivered to us exactly when and where we want them that really impacts our lives.

According to McKinsey, there are five ways in which big data creates value:

a) Make information transparent and usable at higher frequency;

b) Allow organisations to collect more accurate and detailed performance information, hence improving their ability to make management decisions;

c) Provide ever-narrower segmentation of customers with more precise products or services;

d) Undertake sophisticated analytics to sharpen decision-making; and

e) Improve the development of next generation products and services. An example would be more pro-active maintenance schedules for big ticket items like cars.

4) Sensors

Currently, sensors are able to emulate three of our five human senses – sight (cameras), touch (motion detectors), and hearing (microphones). In the future, scents and tastes may possibly be detected too. Through sentient computing, computers and machines are increasingly able to replicate human actions and behaviours (just think of Apple’s Siri).

Health and fitness buffs now attach numerous devices that detect and track their progress. Examples include Fitbands like Jawbone and Nike+ Fuel band which track how much one moves over a day and send that information to a computer.

The most promising areas may come from the field of robotics where sensors help machines emulate human movements. This may have applications in medicine, where bionic prosthetic limbs could more accurately mimic the original flesh and bone versions.

5) Location-based services

Location, location, location! These days, it isn’t just a real-estate play, but an individual person’s mobility. Through GPS, indoor wireless positioning systems (like YFind), Bluetooth positioning trackers, and other such technologies, we are able to pinpoint where we are down to the nearest couple of metres.

With many of us checking in on Foursquare, Google+ or Facebook, businesses often know where we are and who we’re with at the moment. This possibility allows them to offer location-specific time-limited offers and other deals.

Privacy versus Personalisation

While some may relish the ability of companies to conduct pinpoint marketing, others have baulked at the loss of privacy and security. For instance, the ability of Amazon to provide spot-on product recommendations comes with a loss of personal purchase information. Similarly, companies that offer freebies in return for participating in a survey are buying your private information.

In fact, Google probably knows more about you then you do yourself!

This brings us to the related phenomenon of filter bubbles. For this, Wikipedia’s definition is quite telling:

A filter bubble is a result state in which a website algorithm selectively guesses what information a user would like to see based on information about the user (such as location, past click behaviour and search history) and, as a result, users become separated from information that disagrees with their viewpoints, effectively isolating them in their own cultural or ideological bubbles.

The challenge therein lies in the trade-off between personalisation and privacy. While you may sacrifice your own privacy by offering embedded technologies with information on your family profile, whereabouts, tastes, and so on, doing so would also improve your consumption experiences.

Artificial Intelligence Next?

As the world moves towards a future filled with embedded and sentient technologies, it behooves us to consider what digital trails we choose to leave behind and the value they bring.

From the consumer viewpoint, we need to be mindful of not allowing the contextual web to rob us of our individuality, while embracing the pleasures which intuitive technologies bring. From the business viewpoint, however, we need to consider how much data to collect from our customers and communities, be mindful of privacy laws, and avoid freaking them out. 

Naturally, the next step in contextual intelligence lies in artificial intelligence. While IBM’s Watson may triumph over a human competitor in a game of Jeopardy, it is still some way to go before our operating systems can morph into a Scarlet Johansson sounding Her.

What are your thoughts on contextual technologies?

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