Robert Scoble, co-author of “The Age of Context,” wearing Google Glass at the 2013 Startup Conference (Photo by JD Lasica).
New book, out today, identifies ‘five forces’ animating modern culture
Every few years someone comes along and pulls the camera back to reveal a wider view of the technological changes coursing through the business world and larger culture. Robert Scoble and Shel Israel have done just that with their new book, “The Age of Context: Mobile, Sensors, Data and the Future of Privacy” (paperback, self-published).
The authors nicely contextualize what they call the “five forces” in what amounts to a technology megatrend: mobile, sensor devices, social media, big data and location-based technologies. These forces add up to a formidable package, one that deserves scrutiny far beyond the boundaries of greater Silicon Valley, where much of the action takes place.
The book goes on sale today on Amazon (though Amazon lists its release date as Sept. 5).
Scoble and Israel (both friends) convey their thesis – generally about the public good that will be served by the new contextual technologies, accompanied by the occasional caveat or warning – by stringing together short anecdotes about how people are adopting and adapting to this quickly emerging landscape.
Throughout the book, the authors raise provocative questions about how society should navigates an era of pervasive data: Who owns data being collected on individuals? How are the rules of privacy being reshaped, and who gets a say?
As someone who is immersed in Silicon Valley culture, I found myself nodding along more often than not, bemused by some of the bouts of optimistic boosterism and skeptical of some of the more grand claims. But that’s precisely why “The Age of Context” works: It raises the right questions and takes square aim at many of our cherished beliefs. We all have opinions about the effects that these transformations are casting on society, and you’ll have your own chance to cheer or jeer at the conclusions the authors draw.
For instance, why do smart gestures represent a better way to turn on the lights rather than simply flicking a light switch? (Hotels, I can see. Homes? Not so much.) How will “voice and gesture input” possibly supplant keyboards for the millions of us creative types? Will we really see tens of millions of “right-time experiences,” where store employees make offers tailored to customers’ personal needs based on implicit and explicit data they hoover up? And how does a one-click pizza delivery button — or a smart home that times your microwave popcorn to coincide with a commercial break — bring greater context to our lives?
The passages on Google Glass are predictably upbeat, given Scoble’s vow to wear them every waking day until something even more mind-bending comes along. The writers bemoan the fact that no automaker seems interested in exploring the use of digital eyewear for automobile drivers. (Well, OK, as long as the eyewear keeps the Internet shuttered while on the road, but the authors don’t say that.)
They predict that Google will sell a minimum of 100 million units of Glass, at an average of $300 each, over the next three to five years. We’ll have to check back in 2018. I think Google will fall short of that mark and will have to make major changes to Glass for it to reach mass popularity. (Friendly wager?) Of course, when digital technologies become integrated into mass-market eyeglasses and contact lenses we may finally see the tipping point that the authors so eagerly anticipate.
But disagreements like this are what make “The Age of Context” fun as we collectively navigate the churning waters of modern culture. What’s your take? See, predicting the future is fun!
Riveting observations on sensor technologies & business models
Just when my skepticism meter starts beeping, a few pages later, the promise of the new technologies become much more apparent when the authors report on GE’s Grid IQ insight tool, which mines social media for geo-tagged mentions of electrical outages, allowing crews and first responders to respond to power outages, floods, tornadoes or fires. Smart grids may some day minimize the damages from wildfires that claim the lives of firefighters and unaware residents.
I was also riveted by the chapter on sensor-based health technologies, where chips the size of a grain of sand are already being embedded into a pill that can be swallowed for diagnostic purposes. I was unaware of “geographic asthma hotspots,” which can be tracked through access to big data to help people avoid asthma attacks. And I didn’t know about the new context-aware brassiere invented by three college students in India that jolts assailants with an electric shock and alerts authorities via a cell network and GPS geolocation. Genius!
Those who want to remain ahead of the game on the business front won’t want to miss the chapter outlining a vision of a micro-commission marketplace that scales to millions or billions of customers. The authors predict that Google will pioneer a new micro-payment system based on real-world actions people take whenever they act on a tip or lead from a Google device. Microsoft may get in the game too, they suggest.
In short, this insight alone could help augur the most important change in the online marketplace over the next generation and is worth the price of the book, and the five-star rating, alone.
A quibble: Some of the history is a tiny bit off. They write that the term “social media” did not exist in 2005; while the term didn’t gain mass acceptance until 2007, the term was already in use in tech circles and I launched the Socialmedia.biz blog in 2004. (Here’s my photo of Mark Pincus and his dog Zynga at the BlogOn conference in July 2004 where I made the announcement.)
The authors write of Marc Andreessen’s Netscape: “To get everyday people to use Netscape, he offered the browser for free.” Actually, Netscape charged for its browser from 1994 to 1998, and I still remember plunking down to buy every new browser release. Netscape dropped the price to zero only after Microsoft’s Internet Explorer initiated the browser wars with a free product.
But, as I said, those are quibbles. Everyone will come at “The Age of Context” with a different perspective. But they’ll come away with a deeper understanding of the technological and business forces reshaping our lives.
Go. Buy it on Amazon and support two of the deepest-thinking chroniclers of our tech-infused age.
A self-publishing note
An interesting side note: The authors could have gone the traditional route through a publishing house but smartly noted that the long lag time in bringing a book to market would work against a book like this. So they raised $100,000 from six sponsoring companies earlier this year to research and write the book. It’s a brave new approach to self-publishing and one that I suspect will be emulated many times over.
J.D. Lasica, a former book editor at the Sacramento Bee (among many other things), releases his book reviews under a Creative Commons license; his reviews may be republished with attribution.
• The Age of Context, and How It Will Change Our Lives (Robert Scoble, Wired.com)
• Announcing Age of Context a New Book with Robert Scoble (Shel Israel, Forbes.com)