Context Reversing Televolution
The U.S. telecom infrastructure didn’t just happen – it was built largely by AT&T (Ma Bell) with tight cooperation of the U.S. Government. The result was a combination of public policy, business acumen, and technology – all of which were based on a foundation of beliefs that are now obsolete.
There’s no shortage of examples: everything from telecom being a natural monopoly to the creed of “universal service” that created the world’s most reliable and admired network are up for grabs. It was an amazing achievement: virtually any two U.S. addresses are connected by a thin copper wire that no longer has any use.
Attitudes change - as do the technologies and politicians. Today, context is in. We, as a population like context. We don’t like to respond to rings like a dog, but prefer to respond (or not) to a person or topic. Context provides the necessary information.
Context was largely outlawed during the development of the U.S. telephone system. Great effort was taken to eliminate context from the ring. For example, ever notice that the actual ring of a phone and the ring-tone on the receiver are not synchronized? This was deliberate. People were bypassing long distance charges by attempting to signal via ring counts. Charges are only incurred on completed calls, so by agreeing what a single, double, and triple ring meant, parties could communicate for free.
Caller-ID, as a new technology, was very controversial. Caller-ID was already in place for 911, the issue was providing the information to the callee. Both sides used the right of privacy as their key argument. Some felt that caller had the right not to answer the call unless the callee was known – akin to "don’t open the door to strangers." The other side felt they had the right to place calls without revealing their identity. The right to interact with businesses anonymously is a practical “feature” of the phone system. Caller-ID became standard practice (initially it was a charged option). That was the beginning of context.
The phone company always had lots of information about their customers. The phone company knew if you were home (if you used the phone). Knew who and when you made calls. Bell often knew the economic position based on rates, features, and usage. All of this context, by law, was protected – even from the government.
The modern web is all about context. The ads you see tend to be tailored, even search results are customized for individual users. Skype users reveal current presence via the status and a custom message. Skype users also can control who can see this information and who can call – all violations of the PSTN mindset.
Context is in. Many believe it makes for a better experience. Our cell phones know a lot about us: they know our contacts, relationships, whereabouts, and conversations (SMS, email, voice). Many cell phone apps access this information with few, if any, protections about how they use it. The CISPA bill in Congress even says the government can obtain it freely.
In UC, several applications use context to determine call routing. AVST and Esna can route calls based on information in the calendar. Avaya is promising a very robust contextual-aware solution that proposes the right documents, emails, and resources given the specific participants or subject matter of the conversation. Avaya is one of many that doesn’t believe our current contextual tools are very useful, and astutely points out that a green presence icon simply means working on the keyboard. That may indeed be the polar opposite of “available.”
It is amazing how much our attitudes toward context have changed. The question is, will we ever have enough contextual information to be truly aware of a given situation or are we better going without contextual hints? In other words, is all this context a good thing?
As a point of comparison, the publishers of Yellow Pages were tightly regulated to ensure fairness in advertising. Today’s web ads are relatively barely regulated. Google does not disclose how it determines ad (or search) placements. Cell phone apps that access private information such as current location and contacts are not required to disclose or protect this information.
We have really gone to an opposite extreme with our private information in the name of context. Abby Hoffman, Ralph Nader, and many others helped create a wall around our privacy – and that wall is coming down in the name of improved context.