Diateino just published the French translation of The Age of Context by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel: L’Ere du Contexte. Here below is the English version of the preface I wrote for the French audience.
When we speak about the “context” of a phrase or an event, we allude to the circumstances and conditions that give that phrase or event its particular meaning, or import. The “context,” then, acting as a backdrop, allows us to understand, to explain, or to justify the things we encounter through resonance to particular times and/or places. Everything that we say and do is inscribed in an environment we cannot always control, and upon which we are dependent.
In The Age of Context, Shel Israel and Robert Scoble extend and, in some ways, invert the idea of context. Although we are the children of our time, acting and thinking within the spatial and locational framework given us, we are more than the simple products of a context; we are also its creators, by the choices we make and the use of our free will. These days, new technologies offer so many possibilities that we have, more than ever, the ability to become architects of our own contexts.
In the age of hyper-connection, a multitude of technologies allow us to place ourselves within an environment, to understand its complexity, to modify and control it. The Age of Context describes our ability to adapt our surroundings to our needs and extract information that will optimize our decisions and grow our efficacy. We live in a world of mobile devices, social media, and geographical sensors and services that continually transmit to us data that widen our experiences while simultaneously refining them. The context era touches every area of our lives, and it attaches us to all sorts of objects that are themselves interconnected. In 2009, one of the best blogs dedicated to gadgets created by two French people, Eliane Fiolet and Hubert Nguyen, Ubergizmo, asked, “Who would have thought that something as ordinary as a bathroom scale would end up with Wifi functionality? The Wifi Withings scale (from a French company) not only has a look straight out of science-fiction, it can also send your weight and other data to an online dashboard, which you can access via a free iPhone app.”
Robert Scoble and Shel Israel share with us their enthusiasm for human connection through examples from their world, primarily in the United States. But the context age is spreading at more or less the same rate everywhere in the world, and thousands of entrepreneurs are rivaling one another with their ingenuity and creativity. Some are taking on enormous infrastructure problems, such as the Toulouse start-up SIGFOX, which offers a global network powering the Internet of Things that consume little energy and is inexpensive: “I have brought back a taste for low-cost technology that was used by submarines in World War I, the Ultra Narrow Band, which was used to transmit signals in Morse code,” recalls not without humor the company’s founder, Ludovic Le Moan. “With this technology, we deal with very weak signals in the midst of enormous ambient noise.” At the same time, other entrepreneurs merge design and technology with rare elegance, such as, for instance, Netatmo: its smartphone thermostat, designed by Phillipe Starck, allows you to remotely control your heating system while it remembers your habits to adjust the temperature in real time. June, conceived by Camille Toupet, meanwhile, is a splendid piece of jewelry that measures solar exposure and advises women on how best to protect themselves from the sun’s effects.
“Wearables” in general have an important marketing impact. When you wear Google Glass, you become the focus of a very specific interest. You may fascinate and attract the people who want to try them on or, to the contrary, repulse people who fear being stripped of their privacy. Yet, while it is true that some new technologies may generate apprehension, or even outright phobia, it is also a fact that most people get used to it more quickly than we may think: new conventions and rules of courtesy and quality of life are emerging, just as they did with the advent of cell phones. We quickly forget the inconveniences of novelty and retain only its benefits. Ask, for example, the eighty-year-old patient operated upon in a hospital near Rennes what she thinks about the fact that her doctor was able to directly transmit images of her surgery to a professor in Japan! “Thanks to Google Glass, it was as if the professor was by my side at the operating table,” Doctor Collin told a reporter from Ouest-France. “He could see exactly what I was seeing and could interact with me via the glasses’ display.”
Google is testing a prototype for contact lenses that would help diabetics measure glucose levels in their eyes. Samsung, teaming up with San Francisco University, has opened a lab to develop data sensors to allow digital health regulation. The Age of Context is not about the magical era of automatons functioning according to predetermined programs; these days, sensors allow objects to receive and analyze data in order to adapt appropriately to varied environments and consumers without any particular technical knowledge. These objects are more or less complex, but they are usually very simple to use, whether we are talking about the Kolibree toothbrush, which remembers your brushing habits and identify areas that you are brushing incorrectly, or about the Flower Parrot, which helps you optimally take care of your plants.
The Age of Context is a revolution in our daily lives that touches jewelry, electric mowers, cars, drones, or small communication devices such as the Wi-Fi-enabled Nabaztag, which has engendered several next generations since 2005 and whose creator, Rafi Haladjian, has been on a mission “to develop systems that are really intelligent and that allow for the creation of new services in all areas of life.” The smart home is no longer a concept but a reality that is growing and being refined quickly with fascinating incarnations, as the Commission for Energy Regulation (Commission de régulation de l’énergie) reminds us in its survey of communicating house projects and intelligent buildings worldwide: “Eco-efficiency in terms of energy, with intelligence loaded into a habitat and its equipment, is now recognized as a priority by policies and institutions.” This involves numerous economic players, whether they be of the old or new guard: makers of household appliances, producers of electric heating, agents of worldwide telecommunication and internet, building companies, the automobile industry… In this vein, the report adds, “Toyota is developing in Japan, in the village of Rokkasho, a smart housing project, the Toyota Smart Center, in which the automobile manufacturer has established two smart homes equipped with a house system for energy management, with six electric vehicles, rechargeable Prius hybrids.” Naturally, Honda has elected to do something similar in California, where the cars and houses will all be part of a Smart Grid, “smart” electricity distribution network.
The Age of Context describes what Jeremy Rifkin calls “the third industrial revolution.” Whatever the area, the leading directive is one of “smart” assistance to the consumer, that is to say, “a concentration of technology accompanies you in your daily life,” as Omate described its connected watch. Or the idea is to give you the ability to augment your reality, as promises Optinvent, a Rennes-based company that is determined to compete with Google Glass. This is the age of “Smart-Sensing,” which is the name that Cityzen Sciences, a company specialized in the creation of connected textiles, has given to its program. This era is also resolutely optimistic: “This bonding between people and machines will result in people being healthier, better informed, more aware of changes in their environments and more secure, efficient and productive,” writes Scoble and Israel. It’s the opposite of futuristic nightmares of uniformity in the style “Brave New Word,” as everyone can expect a highly personalized experience. Who will have to wait for a cab in the rain when Chauffeur Privé, Drive, LeCab or SnapCar can be summoned in an instant? Stéphane Marceau, co-founder of OMSignal, a Canadian company producing smartwear that gives you data about your physical and emotional states, is not lacking in humor when he takes on as his motto this statement by Aldous Huxley: “There’s only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that’s your own.”