The Age of Context: How Technology is Changing our Interactions

by Dan Holden | September 15, 2013


Late in the evening of July 16, 2012, I was chatting with Robert Scoble on Facebook, getting quotes from him for a story about the appointment of Marissa Mayer as the new CEO of Yahoo.  As an aside, I noted that he had mentioned in an earlier thread that he was writing a book with Shel Israel. So I asked him about it.

“Yeah, we’re seeing a whole trend of new contextual apps and services. So we’re writing a book about the upcoming Age of Context and how it will change your life and work,” replied Scoble. “This is a new trend that’s just developing. And so we want to jump on it before everyone else does.”

He said he was going to announce the book in the morning on his Scobleizer blog.

“What’s your email?” He asked.  “You can watch me type the blog. I’m writing in Google Docs.”

And that’s how I not only learned that Robert and Shel were writing this book, but it’s also how I was able to watch Robert, in real time, draft his first blog post on the subject.  It was an interesting experience, because you could feel the enthusiasm he had for the subject matter, and his confidence that he was entering green territory.

Having the first look at the post also allowed me the opportunity to post the first story on the subject as well, with additional color from Robert.

“So, what do you think?” Robert asked as he finished up the draft. “You’re the first eyes on this.”

“Very cool,” I said. “It’s packed with good information. You’ve done a great job of describing the market, especially in consumer terms…”

We talked for a while about some of the applications mentioned in the post, including one that had not been announced yet.  I remarked that he will likely be way ahead of anyone else in writing about some of these concepts, since as the “legendary lover of new technology,” he often is the first to see cool new apps coming out of Silicon Valley.

“Yup. And I am watching the genre form,” he replied. “We’re at the Apple I days of this stuff. Apple II will arrive any day.”

At the time, the tentative title for Scoble and Israel’s book was “The Age of Context: How it Will Change Your Life and Work.  Since then, it has changed to its current form, The Age of Context: Mobile, Data, Sensors and the Future of Privacy.

I told Robert back then that I thought he was “cutting a new category for research and analysis,” and I still think that is true. But the two authors have gone way beyond my expectations.

The Age of Context is a visionary look into the next wave of innovation, and it’s grounded firmly in hundreds of examples of new products and ideas that are just now beginning to shape the way we’ll interact.

In his position as a leading tech influencer and video blogger, Robert has the enviable reputation of being the first to see many new products and apps before they are publicly announced. He’s often the first to write or, more likely, video blog on them. Perhaps more importantly, he’s among the first who really gets it when he sees a groundbreaking technology. (Of course he’s sometimes wrong, but so is everyone else, so let’s leave this point as is.)

Shel, of course, has all the executive level connections necessary to tell the story so the two authors aren’t doing it all themselves. It’s a credibility-building exercise that also colors the story with elements of policy, strategy and politics.

The magic of The Age of Context is that it succinctly delivers example after example of what the authors are saying, providing undeniable support for their contention that technological developments under way today will fundamentally change how we interact with the world for many years to come.

“Change is inevitable, and the disruption it causes often brings both inconvenience and opportunity,” wrote the dynamic duo in the first page of the book’s introduction (which by the way they posted as it was written). “The recent history of technology certainly proves that. In the pages that follow, we describe contextual computing, the latest development in the evolution of technological change, and discuss how it will affect nearly all aspects of your life and work.”

The Age of Context is all about sensors and gadgets, apps and data, but it would be a mistake to suggest that it is a rework of the old and perhaps already tired concept known as the “Internet of Things.”

While proponents of the Internet of Things are still stuck explaining the benefits of having a sensor on your refrigerator to alert you to the need for more milk, Scoble and Israel are way beyond that.

Because the two already get it that “context” is about making data and analysis work, they are able to enter the world that these sensors inhabit and show us what that means for our future on many more levels.

“When we talk about ‘the system knowing about you,’ that knowledge depends on machine learning and database computation breakthroughs that couldn’t be imagined when Microsoft researcher Jim Gray turned on Microsoft’s first terabyte database back in December 1997,” wrote the pair.

Interestingly, the book cuts into territory so new that most of it is still in the formative stages. That means the people interviewed for Age of Context delivered candid, but often hedged views on the direction of their research and development efforts.

For instance, in a section on the “freaky” new driverless automobile, interviewees noted that a world of driverless cars could still be a ways off mainly due to government review, but the auto industry is steering toward the automatic car. “Everywhere we visited, in researching this chapter, we saw and heard about little steps where cars can now make decisions that drivers traditionally make. Lots of cars have sensors that start wipers when they sense water. Some now automatically send and receive messages to other cars. At Toyota, they told us of cars talking with traffic lights to avoid bottlenecks and collisions at intersections.”

All of this builds to create a stunning illustration of a world changing in ways that we simply could not have conceived of even a decade ago.

To their credit, Scoble and Israel were not unaware of the controversy that these ideas, as described in the book, will likely create. Indeed, they explore the controversy enthusiastically, even spending an entire section on the hotbutton issue of privacy.

“Some of the technology you’ll read about can be a bit discomforting: Cars without drivers. Calendars that send messages on your behalf. Front doors that unlock and open when they see you approach. But those issues are fairly straightforward; people will either embrace the new technology or they won’t.

“The larger looming issue is the very real loss of personal privacy and the lack of transparency about how it happens. The marvels of the contextual age are based on a tradeoff: the more the technology knows about you, the more benefits you will receive. That can leave you with the chilling sensation that big data is watching you. In the vast majority of cases, we believe the coming benefits are worth that tradeoff. Whether or not you come to the same conclusion, we all will need to understand the multiple issues that will be impacting the future of privacy.”

In all, the Age of Context is a fascinating foray into a brave new world, lead by two of the most competent explorers of the territory.

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