Caring about context
I am a big fan of Van Morrison but only in a very specific place. Out in Northern British Columbia, out beyond Jasper National Park and Mt. Robson, is a cabin. It’s my uncle’s cabin. Perched on a ledge overlooking King Creek, sitting under the shadow of the mountains in the Fraser river valley sits the cabin. A place where even if you visit often, you have still not been there enough.
A few steps from the main cabin is an outbuilding lovingly dubbed ‘the shower shack’. Since there is no well on-site, water is trucked into a holding tank near the shack. It's a one-room building that holds most of the tasks that require water on site. A bathtub, a shower, and laundry all sit within a small 200 square foot space of cedar and stone tile. With large windows looking over the creek and up at the mountain through massive pine trees, I can honestly say I have had my most luxurious shower in that shack.
Back to Van Morrison. Above the washer/dryer combo in the shack sits a multi-CD player; the kind that everyone seemed to own in the mid-to-late nineties. By the time I arrived, the player was missing half its buttons and could barely play discs without skipping or throwing an error (it was best to leave the temperamental thing be). That player was a lost cause, save for the Van Morrison Greatest Hits album that lived inside. The first track that would play all the way through was ‘Crazy Love’ - but it was all that I needed. That song, the view, and the steam pulling the cedar scent out of the shiplap boards in a shack out in the middle of nowhere created one of the most magical moments in my life.
I’ve tried recreating that moment again. I’ve tried to get into more of Van Morrison’s back catalogue and I’ve been trying showers most every day of my life. All of these fail to compare to those few moments in Northern B.C. My failure to find that same moment elsewhere has led me to believe that while content is important, it is the context that makes the content worthwhile. I’ve experienced this fact over and over: from paperbacks bought in small wharf-side shops and read on the decks of sailboats to Cokes shared with my Dad on the way home from a trip to town for building supplies. Where and how we encounter content is equally important as the actual content - sometimes if not more.
We equate context with time and place. It’s not a bad start, but when we use the language of 'time' and 'place' we are still leaving a lot unsaid about context. For Van Morrison it was indeed a certain time and place, but I think there was more to the experience than just being a 20 year-old in the northern B.C. wilderness. There were all these intangibles at play, working together to make this moment extremely special for me. The sum of the parts, the sights, smells and sounds all came together and struck me in a special way.
Now here’s the hard part: I really don't think we have the tools to understand or affect context at this level. We only have blunt instruments at our disposal: we have computers in our pockets, we have time-shifting (read/playlater) services and we have analytics and habit-learning algorithms. We have all this, and yet we still don't have much of an ability to plan for context that connects on a deeper emotional level, even on a good day.
When it comes to digital content, context is still something that we are only beginning to explore. I think it's something that we pay lip service to, but we don't afford ourselves the time or empathy to truly explore it as a core aspect of our content. It perhaps has driven some of how we now design, especially for the odd experimental project. However most of the time we don’t go far enough in trying to enrich the contexts that we encounter content. On the web we’re still playing the ‘if this, then that’ game - merely just responding to a few basic things we know about the people in touch with our work.
What if we were able to create content like a craftsman creating a tool: adding touches and elements that are unique, useful, and that reflect back on the hands that created it? What if we exited the ‘this content is for everyone, every eye at every moment’ game? What if we stopped salivating at the ‘boundlessness’ of the web and created things that acknowledged and respected the inherit limits of what is possible. What if, God forbid, we respected the serendipity of context - allowing more unintentional discovery? Hard questions yes, but important ones if we are really going to appreciate what exists online like we appreciate our libraries of paper and vinyl.
Much of what we have done to emotionally connect with people online has been done with the visual design of content, and this work is important. Though I believe we should forge ahead and look at better ways to emotionally connect with people in meaningful ways; to understand where they are at, meet them there and give them more than cheap digital parlour tricks. If we look deep enough and aim high enough, we will be able to bring magical moments that people will remember and reflect upon for a long time. And that, I believe, is a very worthy goal.