Context — not Content — is King

Context is defined as “the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed.” Without context, none of human knowledge would make sense. Context provides the necessary background from which we can connect dots and draw novel conclusions; a lack of context will push us towards solutions that are woefully ignorant and incomplete.

As Professor Walter Alvarez of UC Berkeley examines context in an interesting way. He studies Big History, a field that traces the threads of history from the Big Bang to the current moment. For him, context depends on two things: “On the one hand, I see continuities, made up of trends and cycles, combined in various ways at various time scales. On the other hand, there are contingencies – rare events that make significant changes in history that could not have been predicted very far in advance.”

Big History

In his view, things are governed by regular laws that enable us to predict outcomes, but since we lack knowledge about initial conditions and confounding factors, our predictions can be far off. If that’s the case and our prediction-making will always be somehow flawed, the next best thing we can do is remain aware of our context. However, that task has become exponentially harder as the amount of available information has ballooned.

Indeed, in 1945, Vannevar Bush published the essay As We May Think in The Atlantic, in which he described the “memex,” a device that would help humanity cope with all of the information it created. Bush’s conception of the memex laid the foundation for the Internet. As an aside, Bush also founded Raytheon (the defense and aerospace firm) and helped run the Manhattan Project, apart from his contributions to computer science. In As We May Think, Bush wrote that “the investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers—conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear.”

Associative Trail
This is an example of an associative trail.

We’re inundated by the amount of information around us, which makes it incredibly hard to cut through all the noise to get the signal. As Bush states, the human mind distills signal from noise via association:

“With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain … [With technology,] one cannot hope thus to equal the speed and flexibility with which the mind follows an associative trail, but it should be possible to beat the mind decisively in regard to the permanence and clarity of the items resurrected from storage … [Hence,] wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified.”

For people, associations between different pieces of information currently provide context for those thoughts. Soon enough, though, a version of Bush’s memex might come to be. Machines that can learn on their own can gauge human intent and provide information in context, thereby eliminating a lot of knowledge work on our part. We’re now reaching the point of machine context awareness in everyday life: “We’re clearly on the cusp of something quite fantastic–an age where we’ll be able to seamlessly interact with devices around us using the most natural form of communicating. And these devices will be ‘aware’ of our intentions in relation to what we’ve just done and what we’re about to do.”

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