Book Review: The Age of Context: Mobile, Sensors, Data and the Future of Privacy, By Robert Scoble and Shel Israel

All / News / Opinion / Reporting / April 1, 2014

Age of Context front cover

With the global ad spend in 2013 adding up to about $503 billion dollars, it is difficult to argue against the impact advertising has on society and culture. We see it everywhere we go – marketers have for decades competed to get our six seconds of attention, but this is about to change according to Robert Scoble and Shel Israel, the veteran marketing journalists, as we enter the “age of context”.

Having worked in advertising myself as a digital strategist, many points brought up in this book and proposed as “new”, are in fact not new concepts. Ever since the first claimed advertising revolution in the 60’s, when agencies started to realize the importance of target audience research and hired account planners as cultural specialists, context has been increasingly emphasized. Many marketers today realize that you can only reach people when they are in the right mindset, and this is exactly what the age of context rightfully proposes. The difference now is that we finally have the smart technology to truly target people, and most importantly – they have adjusted to the thought of brands acting as mediators for things they truly desire. Brands have started to act more and more like people, and are trying to tailor their messages according to individual needs. 

Google has been tracking your online behavior for quite a while now, and cookies are certainly not a new thing. The difference here is, as the book point out, that now people are part of the decision making when it comes to brand tracking – cookies operate behind the scenes, whilst apps ask you to sign an agreement (even though you might not be reading it). The key here is brand transparency, something that agencies have been working hard on the past decade. With the arrival of graph-based search engines such as Microsoft’s Satori and the less successful Facebook graph search, we are entering an age of contextual knowledge, where search queries are better understood as relational datasets. Scoble and Israel believe that Satori will overtake Google’s search engine because of this, and I agree that context here is the key for companies to thrive. Contextual data is the backbone in development of personalized digital assistants such as Apple’s Siri, and with smart search engines as a hub for all this new technology on our smartphones, all we are missing is the human sensibility of understanding exactly when to push out a message to customers. 

The book proposes five key technological pillars as the driving force behind this new contextual age: the internet of things is now finally taking place, using mobile as a hub, sensors to provide data and marketing plans that respect privacy to slowly shift our psychological stance from fearing brands to seeing how they benefit us. Pinpoint marketing will evolve to better understand our milieu, and profit will be mainly commission based. At least, that’s the way to go if brands want to start being our friends.

So what does all this mean for designers? Suddenly, we have a whole new set of products that act as a smart second skin, augmenting our sensors and tracking our every move. The emergence of wearable technologies allow for the entering of brands into our personal sphere, the question being will we allow this? I believe that this change will be more gradual than many might predict, as psychological changes especially when it comes to trust and privacy is slow. Brands will truly have to gain the trust of people again, and emphasize the benefits of sharing personal data with them. Google Glass is probably the first product with the potential to make this happen big, as users will soon be able to tell Glass for example that they are thirsty, and Glass will give you the nearby deals on drinks considering your personal taste and transportation vehicle. But even with this contextual data, providing customers with right-time experiences will be difficult. Even with pulse, muscle or galvanic skin response sensors, technology is not smart enough to accurately track your mood and emotion. The risk here is that brands will take advantage of the new mediums that are so close to your body in ways that annoy us, and it is up to the customers and designers to speak up and keep a two way dialogue to prevent this from happening. 

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Fabiola Einhorn
Fabiola Einhorn
Guest Contributor, Cultbytes Austin-based interaction designer and recent MFA graduate from Parson's Design & Technology program, currently at frog design. A passion for understanding human behavior lead her to pursue a BA in creative advertising strategy at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, which has greatly shaped her research focused work, always considering the cultural and contextual aspects of user centered-design. Her creative practice is led by an intent to explore forgotten or hidden truths about the human condition through conceptual forms of inquiry and design thinking/making. She finds it an exciting time to explore her biggest passions - notions in connected healthcare, affective computing, tangible interactions and wearables. She truly believes that technology needs to be in service of design, and can help the greater good. l contact l

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