The ‘age of context’ and perfect information: Robert Scoble and ‘Mr Silicon Valley’ Marc Andreessen

20130306-005142.jpgConsumer electronics is undergoing a shift as radical as the dawn of the internet, with consequences for commerce but also for journalism. And it while it’s part of mobile, it’s also bigger than mobile. So suggests Robert Scoble, the video blogger and former Microsoft tech evangelist. We are moving into the ‘age of context’, he says, in which people and objects will be comprehensively monitored by electronic sensors that place everything ‘in context’, providing data that proposes to deliver efficiency in myriad ways.

In such a world, documented in every sense by sensors in the so-called ‘Internet of Things‘, reporting the news is a new ballgame. When the maker of a new motor car takes issue with a journalist’s review of that car, it is no longer the journalist’s notepad as arbiter of truth, but the car’s onboard collection of data gathering sensors that settle the argument. Just see how Nissan is allowing access to your car’s data via your mobile phone.

Sensors are up there with drones leading journalism into its next iteration, as reported by Alex Howard for O’Reilly Media. Drones themselves are now deploying sensors to monitor disaster zones. From mapping traffic flows to measuring pollution – and even tracking bumps in the road, like this mobile app being used in Africa – sensors are the olfactory sense of data-sourced reporting. The implications are huge and have the potential to be exploited for great benefit to the community – a recent Knight Challenge winner called Behavio, which deploys the sensors on mobile phones to provide social and behavioural data about communities, has just been absorbed into Google.

Equally interesting about this age of context, however, is its vision of a world of ‘perfect information’ – a phrase which may resonate with anyone who’s studied economics as one of the conditions of efficient markets. I recommend spending a few minutes hearing Scoble interview the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, pictured, in this regard (it’s 25 minutes, but worth it).

Here, Scoble asks Andreessen, partner in Andreessen Horowitz, for his perspective on the implications of what Scoble calls the Age of Context. The interview is 25 minutes long, but worth sticking with for the insight it offers into trends that will drive not only consumer electronics, but our broader experience of the world (given that we will be literally covered in sensors etc). CES2013, he says, was pretty much all about sensors.

Scoble defines his ‘contextual’ world in terms of five phenomena:
– The profusion of sensors in everything from smartphones to clothes to household appliances.
– Wearable tech such as Google Glass, Nike Fuelband, Fitbit etc
– Bigger, better databases bringing Big Data benefits for developers to do more interesting things.
– Spike in social data on the likes of Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr
– Spike in location data from Foursquare, Facebook, Google Maps and so on.

What this boils down to is that devices are becoming more personal – able to respond to your tastes and desires – and predictive, able to know what those tastes and desires may be before you even express them. They know where you are, and how you feel, and potentially unnervingly, how to make you feel. Leaving aside the nightmare scenarios of the hive mind taking over and turning us into mulch, the optimists are preparing for a new era of commerce delivering unprecedented opportunities, in exchange for a reconfiguring of our traditional notions of privacy and the personal. Scoble, for example, is the arch-example of the early adopter who has yielded up all his personal data to the social networks and corporate world at large, in the belief that the efficiencies and other forms of self-actualisation will outweigh any loss of ‘privacy’.

A counter-argument is made in this video at the end of a Business Insider piece (on Facebook’s new Home app) by some Internet security experts who argue that we don’t know enough about how much data we’re yielding up, and that is an unacceptable compromise.

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