In the age of context the web is a collective intelligence platform

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AgeOfContext-coverConnected objects, (big) data, social networks. They are today’s hot topic even if the general public and even businesses don’t really understand what it’s really about. Each concept taken alone is poorly understood and the potential of their joint use is often unseen.

This new frontier of computing is the subject of Age of Context: Mobile, Sensors, Data and the Future of Privacy by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel.

Through the exploration of ten or so specific use cases that range from marketing to town planning, the authors show us where this revolution that is not only about technology but will change the way we’ll live, the way company will create value, is leading us. A revolution that’s both technological and social.

Nothing illustrates more what the book is about that this quote that opens the first chapter : computing is not about computers any more. It’s about living. (Nicholas Negroponte – Co-founder,  MIT Media Labs)

From context to collective intelligence

The web has often been associated with collective intelligence, most of all in its 2.0 and social evolutions, more centred in people and participation. What is not exactly true. There is no more intelligence on the web than its users and what they can take from it is limited by participation. The only things that can be found is what people wanted to share and what people will make of it will be limited by their capabilities. Intelligence is not in technology but in users.

The era Scoble and Israel describe is quite like what I call the passive participation one. An era where any action automatically feeds a system with the need of a specific sharing action.

Where’s the collective intelligence ? It’s in the cloud, in the systems of the companies operating the services supported by this new model. These services will anticipate, predict and sometimes act instead of users or provide them with information to make decisions and act. The limiting factor is not participation and the capability of making the most of what is shared online but the system’s capability of capturing the context of the user.

Context is captured in different ways. By connected objects first. Many people thing that the benefits of connected objects come from the fact they can be controlled remotely by another device. That’s wrong. Their value is tu be used as sensors, capture the context and be able to act upon an order send based on the analysis  of the context. Then by social media and networks that are mines of unstructured information coming from voluntary sharing and conversations. Last through the data generated by any kind of systems (credit cards statements etc…)

Processing these data allows to either send information to the user (advice, suggestion, alert), to a third part (advertisers, service providers – bank, healthcare – police, firemen) or an order to a connected object. This processing is based on the identification of patterns through the data of other users. The more data from the more people, the more accurate predictions are for a given person.

If people are still information producers, the intelligence has moved to the system.

If the understanding of context is what helps machines to be more accurate, that’s were we stand.

The age of context : not that futuristic

Scoble et Israel go through many use cases based on the 5 building blocks of the coming revolution : mobile, data, sensors, social media and geolocation.

One should pay lot of attention to these cases. Us as users (and sometimes as products or objects of the system), but also businesses and public authorities that will see their models and activities disrupted. A new paradigm anyone should understand because it’s not futuristic at all.

As a matter of fact if we’re far from understanding the full potential of what’s going to happen, we’re  not talking about the future. These concepts are already at work and we’re using them consciously or unconsciously. We’re also being used unconsciously. We’re only at the beginning of the road but the journey has stared, either we like it or not.

Privacy : the real concern of the age of context

If we have no real idea of what’s going to happen in the future, if it looks promising, I’m often surprised by the boundless enthusiasm of many advanced users and industry specialists every time a new product is announced. If the benefits can be high, the risks regarding privacy and some fundamental rights is at least as high.

Scoble and Israel do not overlook this concern. The future of privacy is not dealt with as a side effect and is dealt with in every chapter of the book. It’s even one its main topics, as the title shows. The authors don’t have a clear-cut opinion but a rather pragmatic approach. They consider that if the benefits will be high and the progress can’t be stopped, we can’t and should not accept anything. All along the book they point at use cases they find irrelevant or dangerous, admitting than decisions will have to be made. Knowing what we’re giving up, what is the price we are ready to pay and what we expect in return.

The problem is not technology but trust

In the end – and that’s the topic of the last but one chapter – the problem is not technology but trust. Trust in services, in the use made of data, in businesses, in technology. I don’t know if there’s anything ideal in the age of context but what is sure is that without ethics it’s going to be a nightmare.

In short Age of Context: Mobile, Sensors, Data and the Future of Privacy is a good read for people and businesses who want to understand where we’re headed, reinvent their business model or even find an idea to start a new business. I would also advice lawyers and civil rights defenders to read it to understand what they’ll face tomorrow.