Taylor Davidson · Content is cheap, context is expensive. Is it any surprise which one we lack?

Why is context scarce?
by Taylor Davidson · 18 Nov 2008

Everyday we encounter a deluge of information: it’s still there even if you’re not listening.

Digging signals out of the noise is hard work.

We’re drowning in information (or at least I am).

We’re inundated with interaction.

Biases, viewpoints and advice abound: who (and what) should we trust?

We’re lost in a cacophony of disaggregated one-sided conversations.

Every day we create a maze of experiences, cross-referenced and tagged with the meta-information of our lives. But tags do not replace theories:

Malcolm Gladwell, Geek Pop Star (New York Magazine):

People are experience rich and theory poor. My role has been to give people ways of organizing experience.

We lack easy access to the underlying theories to understand and filter what we experience and see. We lack context.

The idea that context is important isn’t new (Justin Kistner: It’s the context):

In a 1994 article he wrote for Wired magazine, futurist Paul Saffo addresses the future of digital networks. He writes: “[An] avalanche of content will make context the scarce resource. Consumers will pay serious money for anything that helps them sift and sort and gather the pearls that satisfy their fickle media hungers. The future belongs to neither the conduit or content players, but those who control the filtering, searching and sense-making tools we will rely on to navigate through the banal expanses of cyberspace.”

Yes, context is king.

We understand why we need context: but we’re just starting to see how context can be so powerful. Umair Haque, (via Ethan Bauley):

…when interaction is cheap, the very economic rationale for orthodox brands actually begins to implode: information about expected costs and benefits doesn’t have to be compressed into logos, slogans, ad-spots or column-inches.

… instead, consumers can debate and discuss expected costs and benefits in incredibly rich detail.

But what are we going to do with all the discussions, debates and conversations?

Why is context scarce?

  • Information is cheap to create and distribute. Granted, creating valuable information is still expensive. But at the same time we’ve created quick, easy and free tools and processes to automatically create, distribute and promote information.

How many different sources are available for us to distribute our thoughts or ideas with the click of a button? How much information can we distribute automatically, passively, without marginal effort or time?

Is making information available in as many channels as possible a positive or a negative?

  • Interaction is cheap to create and distribute but costly to consume. We’re easier to reach than ever, caught in a culture that values constant availability and instant responses. We use a variety of methods and devices to interact, each with their particular benefits and costs.

But almost all of our interaction creates some deadweight loss, either in time, effort or money. Multi-tasking degrades our productivity non-linearly: we take extra time to bounce back from interruptions (anyone wonder why we hate advertising, i.e. interruptive corporate spam?).

Passive interaction imposes less of a cost than active interaction; but we still spend inordinate amount of time and energy processing information and responding to unclear, unimportant requests. (Anyone like meetings?) We aren’t mind readers: we miss clues, fail to explain things, forget to mention key points.

We’ve victims of our quests for access and availability.

  • Context is expensive: hard to create, hard to learn, hard to distribute. At the intersection of information and interaction, context is a unruly mixture of variables, each with own level of situational impact. Content is expensive to filter: false positives add to the noise as we simultaneously mistakenly discard valuable signals. Strict rules-based systems for managing interaction can be expensive to manage. We have to listen to both sides to balance out the debate, to understand the biases, to pick out what people are actually saying. Education takes time.

Transparency does not create context on its own: it increases the amount of available meta-information, but processing transparency and the intentions behind our biases and actions remains an art, not a science.

Context takes people: it takes our time, energy and attention. The semantic web remains an unfulfilled promise. Finding the right information takes time: search engines aren’t perfect, recommendation sites are a mess and accessing our incomplete networks of outsourced knowledge takes time. Finding the right people through intelligent routing is a start, but it is still expensive to test, understand and evaluate people’s knowledge.

Expensive problems create enticing opportunities.

It’s not surprising that we have too much of what’s free but truly lack what’s expensive. We’re culturally obese and overleveraged, built to over-consume and store up things we don’t need in our mind, body and soul.

Don’t get me wrong: I like the mess. I like the free-for-all of the blogging world. I try to do my share to “import and export ideas” efficiently, but I still share the blame for creating a lot of noise.

We still do a lot of talking: we’re starting to listen, but it isn’t enough. We can figure out better ways to organize and understand what we create.

What information will we pay for? What interactions will we pay for? What context will we pay for?