Contextual Data: New Dawn or False Promise?

Aug 15 2015

The Age of Context promised to be a revelatory book on the future of market research, but I have to admit to be being ultimately disappointed. The authors are evangelists for new technology, but their evangelism often feels like an informercial for the companies that they mention, and their over-enthusiasm for many ideas is irritating rather than inspiring (especially that for Google Glass). However, my biggest concern with this book is that ultimately it reads as wishful fantasy rather than future reality, as the authors enthuse for what may be possible without failing to address many big issues with the trends that they discuss.

They start by outlining the trends that they believe will shape the future of our use of and interaction with technology. They discuss wearable technologies (and seem to have a fetish for Google Glass), the Internet of Things and many other technology trends, breaking them down into five key themes.

  1. mobile
  2. social media
  3. data
  4. sensors
  5. location

All these themes are important for market research specifically as well as for society generally. Mobile has been the big trend in market research for many years now (and hopefully now a part of life rather than a future trend). The authors talk about the smartphone as the primary device of most people, quoting a whole list of statistics on mobile I use. I don’t think many will disagree with the point, although the book is rather too focused on the USA and less so on the rest of the world.

Their comments on social media are I think misguided. They believe that it is now a day-to-day business component rather than a disruptive force, but my own point of view is that most businesses have still not worked out how to use social media as anything more than another channel to push out the same old communications (with a few notable exceptions).

They talk at length about data, with more statistics. They make a good point about the differences between “big data” versus “little data” arguing that it is the precision and “findability” of specific data points that may make big data powerful, allowing data to become highly contextual. They take a very relaxed view of concerns over data privacy and fears of big business using data to watch and target people, seeing it as a liberation rather than a present data. I’m not sure I agree with them on this rather naive and idealistic view of business and government, and their arguments are flimsy.

They also talk about the impact of sensors that measure your behaviour, our senses and the environment and technology that we interact with. They point out that the average smartphone already has seven such sensors, and that they are vital to the development of the Internet of Things.

The fifth area discussed in the book is that of location, in my opinion perhaps the most currently useful of the trends in combination with mobile and certainly the one that has had the most impact on my own behaviours.

The book also covers trends such as driverless cars, health monitoring, wearable technology and many more. Although the book is a great introduction to many other technology trends of today, it too often reads like a list of wishes and an informercial for all the Silicon Valley and other companies mentioned in the book.

In the final chapters of the book, the authors mention some of the concerns and issues with the encroachment of these technologies, but fail to tackle them and instead revert to the optimism bias of technology junkies without addressing important issues about trust, privacy and the impact of such trends on society and individuals. As Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic recently pointed out in a Guardian article on wearable devices (17 July 2015), although the industry and Age of Context talk about the “Fitter, happier, more productive” future that Radiohead sung about in 1997, the reality may be more like Albert Einstein’s famous statement that, “Not everything that counts can be measured, and not everything that can be measured counts.”

I’m with Einstein on this. Age of Context talks up the future of technology and provides a well documented overview of the potential of many current trends, but ultimately fails to understand the broader context that technology only changes behaviour where it makes peoples lives better. The authors are handicapped by their own naive blinkered view of progress. That doesn’t mean that these trends don’t matter, and there is certainly much that market research needs to take note of in the trends that the book discusses.

But will the world be as different in 10 years time as the authors seem to believe? I don’t think so. Universal human truths nearly always beat technology for technology’s sake. Or as someone more eloquently put it, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”.


Age of Context: Mobile, Sensors, Data and the Future of Privacy by Robert Scoble & Shel Israel

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