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

Age of Context: Mobile, Sensors, Data and the Future of Privacy, written by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel, explains some of the positives, negatives, and ethical issues that have arisen in our new ‘Age of Context’, and then examines what we can do to adapt. The Age of Context refers to the new age, in which technology dominates our lives, often at the expense of our personal privacy.
The book explains that humans will need to adapt to the changes that technology brings, as our world leans in the unfamiliar direction of autonomous cars and artificial intelligence. According to Marc Benioff, Founder of Salesforce, “Adapting is what enables us to survive and thrive in an always changing world. The only constant is change”. This quote well represents the motif of Age of Context.

As I began to read the book, I was a little bit skeptical. It was written in 2014, and to put things in context, the Apple Watch was nothing more than an idea back then. Considering the speed at which the tech industry is moving, I wondered whether the analysis in the book might be outdated, or ambitious. I came across a bold prediction early on, when the authors claimed: “The number of people using tablets will grow to 665 million by 2016”. I decided to look for some updated statistics, and to my surprise, I discovered that the prediction was wrong; the number had already soared past a billion by that stage. So despite my skepticism, the only thing the authors were wrong about, was quite how accurate their analysis had been.

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The most important thing to understand in order to navigate the Age of Context, is the role that ‘The Five Forces’ play. Mobile, Social Media, Big Data, Sensors, and Location are the forces that drive this new age. They impact and determine many of our life experiences, from shopping, to healthcare. The importance of each is as follows:

Mobile
Mobile is the ‘aggregator’ of the other four Forces, it is where they converge. Our phones serve as keys to the ‘Power of the internet’, we use them to navigate social media, and to store our data. They contain a variety of sensors, and keep track of a variety of things, including our location.

Social Media
In recent years, Social Media has evolved into a new form of two-way communication between corporations and consumers. Social Media serves as a new, human face of the company, while also solidifying the company’s brand and image. For the consumer, Social Media can be a convenient form of communication with the corporation.
It is also worth noting that Social Media works well on mobile devices, and is capable of collecting all kinds of data about its users –– think Facebook last April.

Big Data
Data is the ‘oxygen’ of the Age of Context, “Because it is everywhere and it is essential” to its existence. The sheer size of the amount of data in the world has earned it the title ‘Big Data’, and thanks to the accelerating power of technology, it is incredibly difficult to grasp quite how big the internet is, or how quickly it’s growing.
Big Data’s biggest achievement in the Age of Context is not its accumulation, but rather, its relationship with ‘Little Data’. ‘The Miracle of Little Data’ celebrates the idea that we can so easily and quickly locate the smallest pieces of information from the seemingly infinite pile. As this process has become easier and faster, search engines are beginning to understand how to think like humans (think of how eager Google is to finish your sentences).

Sensors
The role of Sensors in the Age of Context is vital, they collect all the information to be interpreted. We have sensors in our phones that detect motion, location, touch, and much more. Sensors can warn us about earthquakes, prevent car accidents, and restore the sense of touch in prosthetic limbs.

Location
Hand-in-hand with all of these other forces is Location-based technology. Knowing somebody’s location can be vitally important in figuring out why they chose to make a purchase, or whether they committed a crime, or whether they will get stuck in traffic on their way to work.

These five forces contribute to the Age of Context, in which context is everything. Your data is bigger, more important, and more available than it ever has been before. Two parts of the book that I found particularly interesting were the discussions of Wearable Technology, and of privacy.

Our desire to have portable/wearable technology brought us from the desktop to the laptop, and from the laptop to the tablet. Though the mobile phone remains to be the most popular form of wearable technology, devices like the Apple Watch and FitBit have seen considerable success in recent years. Wearable Technology makes use of all five forces discussed earlier (Mobile, Social Media, Data, Sensors, Location).
Because of this, the authors are confident in the industry’s future, citing the long-standing “Moore’s Law” as one reason why technology is bound to continue getting smaller, and more convenient.
At this stage, the age of the book became a slight issue, because the authors were also convinced of the inevitable success of Google Glass. They devoted an entire chapter of the book to its brilliance, and made references to its success at several stages throughout. Google discontinued Glass in the commercial market a few years ago, and it is considered to be one of their bigger failures in recent years. However, the arguments made by Scoble and Israel remain strong regardless.
We want technology to connect us with one another, but we don’t want the technology to dictate our experience. We first and foremost want to be Humans, who make our own decisions, and wearable technology that works alongside us allows us to do exactly that. Even if Google Glass might have been too elite, too nerdy, or too expensive, I would be surprised if smaller, more wearable technologies don’t become more prevalent in the coming years.

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One of the biggest obstacles to success in the Age of Context are the underlying questions of privacy. Anyone can agree that we benefit from the emergence of the Five Forces, but their convenience comes at a definite cost. The price we pay is our personal privacy, and this raises a multitude of questions. In a world when nobody reads the Terms of Use before accepting them, when credit card details are stored alongside family photos, how much privacy can anyone really have? When advertisers want to get their hands on our personal information, how much is too much to give away? Is it ethical to invade someone’s personal privacy if you believe you are preventing a crime from happening? Most importantly, is Big Data watching us?
The authors’ answer to the last question, at least, is a “Resounding yes”. Remember, the motif of this book is adaptation. If we believe that the benefits outweigh the risks, and the risks aren’t too risky, all that is left for us to do is figure out how to adapt to our new set of circumstances. The authors believe that a number of things can make this process easier for all involved; people should have the option to opt-out of ‘privacy costs’, there should be more transparency from corporations and government, and so on.

The book is well summarised in its last sentence, “At the end of the day, the technology has always been and always will be just a set of tools for people to use and abuse as they see fit. We can gush about the virtues and agonise about the dangers until we turn purple. What the Age of Context will look like 25 years from now is really up to us.”

I would definitely recommend this book for anyone who is interested in the future of technology. Topics covered this book range from autonomous cars, to healthcare, to Personal Contextual Assistants, and there are hundreds of smaller gadgets and projects discussed throughout. The authors weigh the positives and negatives, while also providing the reader with an ongoing narrative that helps us realise how best to navigate the ever-changing tech world.

5 thoughts on “Book Summary – Age of Context: Mobile, Sensors, Data and the Future of Privacy

  1. I really loved that last quote of the book you included, since it is so true that there will always be ways to both “use and abuse” technology. It seems as though the questions revolving around privacy will always linger, as the internet of things is only growing further, and all of our personal information is continually intertwining with technology. Cool images!

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  2. Wow! I would never have guessed that the number of tablet users surpassed one billion two years ago! Great summary and I look forward to reading the book. I wouldn’t be too quick to discount the success of a future Google Glass equivalent — Glass may have been ahead of its time, but we may be approaching a similar product in the next 10+ years that could replace the iPhone (purely conjecture). With Oculus and A/V/MR, adoption of the next Google Glass could prove the authors right!

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  3. Wow, it really is crazy to think how we live in a completely different age than those that came before us. Each of us exist not only physically, but are accompanied by a sea of data that we leave behind. I’ve been thinking more and more about the issue of privacy that you discussed, and I agree – it really is the biggest hurdle to proper innovation and development that we will have to overcome. Will everyone eventually decide that we value productivity more than privacy, or will someone come up with some sort of solution that allows users to control their own data without stifling innovation or profits? Looking forward to hearing more about this in class!

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  4. I enjoyed reading about the five forces and how they each play a major role in our everyday lives. I think personal data has continued to become more available to companies which has worried many about having their privacy compromised. I’m interested to see how various governments will continue to grapple with regulating data capture especially after watching how GDPR has affected so many companies. I liked how you brought up the point about people not usually reading the Terms of Use before accepting them. I know I have been guilty of this many times and not knowing exactly what I am agreeing to scares me. Seems like an interesting read, and I’m looking forward to hearing more about it!

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  5. I read this one in 2015, so I’m a bit surprised its already dated (but you make a good case). Nonetheless, it sounds like the concepts and ideas still hold true, even if the specific technologies dont.

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