Contextual intelligence — Message for the mass age

What does it mean when we want contextually intelligent systems but don’t want to admit it? Images by Bemvilac Brito

Contextual intelligence has been defined as — Anticipating needs and proactively delivering information from social and device networks (1).
It’s part of the ubiquitous computing world where large amounts of data are collected, analyzed and acted upon by ‘invisible computers’ to give us our connected lives. Contextual intelligence is Level 2 of contextual awareness (when our phones know where we are). Think digital assistants like Google Now. Siri and Cortana are still getting there.

Apple assures us it’s not creepy and they ‘try’ not to collect users’ data but how can they provide the service unless they do?

I’ve had conversations with user experience designers about this and they always squirm uncomfortably about it. I agree that the idea that there’s an entity (a private one at that!) that’s watching everything you do and predicting what you’re going to do is disconcerting. But at the same time, don’t you just love it when you’re reminded when you need to leave for the airport? I find this relationship that we have with the technology we use today really interesting. New technology has always made us uncomfortable but agree with Kitler that about media being an extension of our senses or physical bodies (3).

McLuhan quotes Kenneth Boulder — the meaning of a message is the change which it produces in the image (2). What does it mean when we are interested in receiving the message (Leave in 15 minutes to catch your flight!) but choose to ignore the conversation we’re having with the media, in this case the internet? Would this be a cold media — the media wouldn’t exist were it not for our participation — or a hot one since it doesn’t require our active participation.

To an extent, I agree with McLuhan and Kittler’s techno-deterministic view, that technology has ‘psychic and social effects’ (2). There is a growing dependency on technology, accompanied by a decrease in our willingness to admit it. McLuhan also says that “Subliminal and docile acceptance of media impact has made them prisons without walls for their human users.” Technology, the dominant media of today, seems to be an overarching force in our existence whether we embrace it or not.

It’s interesting that McLuhan, Kittler and Williams approach the evolution of optical media from different directions to strengthen their cases.

Williams’ view that social change will occur regardless of technological change is a little harder to apply to contextual intelligence.

It’s true that the internet has hastened the process of globalization and large scale social networks. Perhaps it would have happened anyway through other communication systems. It could be possible that the internet has evolved because we needed it to do certain things — a symptomatic (3) evolution . After all, technological progress has been supported by some entity, whether it’s the Department of Defence or Google. Technology doesn’t create itself (yet) and the ‘intention to the process of research and development’ (3) is what drives media.

Williams provides a history of how technology advanced to the invention of the television but I think it’s easier to look at it as a linear progression in hindsight. The goal is often not very well-defined and sometimes it’s once the technology has been developed that you realize what you can do with it and what’s the social impact it’s going to have.

It’s difficult to define what came first — the technology or the social needs. But it’s probably not a linear, one-way street with very clear directions and they’re both heavily interdependent on each other.

(1) Parc — https://www.parc.com/services/focus-area/ubicomp/

(2) Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964).

(3) Raymond Williams, “The Technology and the Society” and “Effects of the Technology and its Uses,” Television (London: Fontana/Routledge, 1974).

Interaction & Service Design Concepts: Principles, Perspectives & Practices

Graduate Seminar 1, Fall 2015, Carnegie Mellon School of Design, Collection of the Seminar’s Work

Shruti Aditya Chowdhury

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Designer | Pragmatic Idealist | INFJ

Interaction & Service Design Concepts: Principles, Perspectives & Practices

Graduate Seminar 1, Fall 2015, Carnegie Mellon School of Design, Collection of the Seminar’s Work