Age of Context: Mobile, Sensors, Data and the Future of Privacy

We’ve seen the tv ads with cars that park themselves; we’ve got used to a voice in the car telling us which turn to take next; maybe we have heard about the Google Glass phenomenon. So we know that the world is changing rapidly from what we knew.

And we know our lives are changing in the process.

But what’s the big picture here? Where exactly are we headed with these new technologies? Is this a brave new world? Or just a scary new world?

This very impressive book, Age of Context: Mobile, Sensors, Data and the Future of Privacy, may not be “the” answer (if such a thing is even possible), but it sure provides an overview, some great insights and a dazzling array of examples of technological developments.

The big impact for me was how the book brought together in one coherent picture what I had been seeing as rather disparate, albeit related, technology developments. It’s a picture of convergence of mobile and cloud technologies, or more specifically of five components: mobile devices, social media, big data, sensors and location-based services.

It gave pattern and direction, with real life examples and stories, to what I think of as the future we are in right now – exciting for some, scary for others, and a bit of both for everyone in between.

Co-authors Scoble and Israel make no secret of their enthusiasm for new technology and the good it can help achieve, from saving lives, through having services tailored to our personal needs and actual physical locations in real time (e.g. the Uber app), to renewing cities that have fallen on hard times. They give plenty of examples to support their enthusiasm.

At the same time, they acknowledge clearly the very real and justifiable concerns many people have about technology and its impact on our lives, especially when it comes to privacy.

Thankfully, they do not attempt to proffer any quick fix solutions to these issues, although they do suggest some practical approaches to mitigate the negative effects.

I liked their encapsulation of the privacy dilemma: “The marvels of the contextual age are based on a tradeoff: the more the technology knows about you, the more benefits you will receive.”

Implications for business

In the age of context there are lots of implications for how we can expect to be served as customers and what that might mean for companies too slow to adapt.

Similarly, there are implications for how businesses need to position themselves to be able to take advantage of the new environment. The authors propose that transparency and trustworthiness will make all the difference and that “…the most trustworthy companies will thrive in the Age of Context, and those found to be short on candor will end up short”.

A good read

The book is very readable. Not light, more like elegantly clear, and for me somewhat surprisingly so, given the complexities underlying the technologies being explained. Art that conceals art. And I liked the historical references, for instance the mention of Apple’s Newton, remembered as a monumental failure, but with core technologies that turned up in the iPhone in 2007.

Some words I jotted down to capture my feelings of the moment as I read were, in no order of priority or emphasis: visionary, explanatory, illuminating, practical, fascinating, exciting, smart, challenging, scary, witty, cautionary, freaky, inspiring.

Time for action?

So for those of us in business, is this “age of context” sufficiently upon us that we need to be addressing it right now?

The authors acknowledge it is a topic in technology-centric circles but not, so far, in the world of business, and then go on to say:

However, history indicates that when the tech community is unified, focused and excited about a topic, as it is about context, it almost always follows that they will make waves that land on the shores of commerce. Although this book introduces some thought leaders, the business community overall is not thinking much about context right now. But they will soon be productizing it and using it for competitive advantage.

It sounds to me as if, for those of us who like to be up with the curve, there is little or no time to waste.

Age of Context is on Amazon, of course – and no doubt coming to a good bookshop near you (if you are lucky enough to still have one).

If you get the book – and I recommend you do – please check back here and tell us what you think of it.

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Des Walsh is an executive coach. He helps business owners and entrepreneurs worldwide deal effectively with the feeling of being left behind or overwhelmed, or both, about social media – especially LinkedIn - and how to engage safely and effectively with social media to help grow their business. Connect with Des on LinkedIn, Google+ and Twitter. And to stay in the loop, get Des’s weekly Social Business Bites (select snippets of his "best of the week" online finds).