The Tyranny of Context

Are we hypocrites when it comes to technology? Or are we merely suffering from the tyranny of context? My wife and I are currently staying at an amazing farmhouse built in 1745 along the Merrimac River. Our lovely hosts, Windy and Brent, are caretakers of the house and estate and are what you might call […]

Are we hypocrites when it comes to technology? Or are we merely suffering from the tyranny of context?

My wife and I are currently staying at an amazing farmhouse built in 1745 along the Merrimac River. Our lovely hosts, Windy and Brent, are caretakers of the house and estate and are what you might call a progressive farming family, sticking to a mostly agrarian lifestyle in the technological swirl of the 21st century. In the same day they pickle hundreds of cucumbers they’ll watch a Winnie-the-Pooh YouTube video with their 1 year old. They combine the past and the future as well as anyone.

Yesterday during lunch we got into a conversation about technology, with Windy taking the stance that technology is breaking us away from face-to-face conversation and to that end is not a good thing. She summarized her view by saying she would rather “sit down and drink tea than to text message”.

I reluctantly agreed, but felt compelled to point out that technology isn’t used as a replacement so much as augmentation…we communicate with who we would normally communicate but we do it more often, in more places, and perhaps at the expense of quality alone time.

And thus the argument was set. Either you view technology like cellphones and Twitter as a distraction from quality time or you view it as a helpful add on.

Our argument continued with each of us digging deeper into our trench, if only for the fun of conversation. I mentioned the recent MacArthur foundation study suggesting that teens are learning social interaction skills even while embroiled in new technology: New Study Shows Time Spent Online Important for Teen Development.

My combatant wasn’t buying any of that, and at one point Windy said “I don’t mean to insult you, I know you make a living from technology”. But I didn’t have time to respond (as I was running out the door) and thus our argument ended in a stalemate: each of us unable to sway the other in the time we had.

But in that moment I realized that it is these technologies, blogging, twitter, and cellphones that make it entirely possible for me to have more face-time with the people I want to see most: my wife and kid. If I had to commute every day to an office that wasn’t in my house, I would get hours less time with my 2 year old.

But a funny thing happened later on as I reflected on our discussion. I knew that Windy wasn’t a Luddite, knowing she regularly emails other local mothers (including my wife) about getting together, what products are safe, etc. I knew she used technology, watched YouTube, but I hadn’t been able tie it into our conversation because of the dichotomy we had set up.

So the next time I saw her I asked (knowing she’s a knitter) if she knew of a site called, which bills itself as a “knit and crochet community”. She said, “Yes, in fact I recently signed up to get into their site, but I haven’t got in yet”. Ravelry is still in beta, and they have a waiting list to get in. The current wait, according to the web site, is 4 days.

So it appears that Windy, while arguing that all this technology is distracting, uses it herself all the time. And I, while arguing for the merits of the technology, actually use it to gain more face time. In this way it would be easy to see each of us as living opposite of the way we argued.

What I learned from this discussion is two-fold. First, we let the dichotomy of the discussion overrule our values. We both value face-time, yet we both use technology to help us in our lives. She uses Ravelry, YouTube, and email, but doesn’t think about it in the same way as we imagine teenagers using technology. We assume that when teenagers are texting, emailing, and video sharing that they’re fooling around, wasting time, and losing out on valuable face-time.

Similarly, I use technology to gain more face-time with the people I love. I’ve even held a client phone call from Martha’s Vineyard when I was there on vacation, and I have to say that it’s not that bad. If you can take 15 minutes to make a client happy while on vacation and then immediately return to that vacation, well it sure beats staying in the office for a single phone call.

Anyway, I think this all comes down to what I’m going to call The Tyranny of Context. When we’re in the context of our lives, using technology to augment our daily activities, we don’t think about it as technology, per se. We see it as a tool to help us do fun things. But when we sit back and look at technology from afar, away from the details of context, well we often have a less positive view of it. This is precisely how the very same person who says that people watch way too much TV are then absolutely captivated when they can see the beads of sweat on Kevin Youkilis’ face when viewing a Red Sox game in HD. (that would be me)

And I think this is why context is so hard to design for. We often don’t know why other people find technology valuable…they’re using it in countless ways within their own life. To the causal outsider it looks like they’re just wasting time, but to them it’s merely what they do. To us its merely what we do.

And for those of you who have read this far, MMORPG pioneer Randy Farmer has a great slide deck called Context Is King: Lessons from Online Communities, shown below. His talk begins to formalize some ideas around designing for context, and its a good introduction to what surely will be a very deep iceburg.

View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: communities incentive)
Published: December 3rd, 2008

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