Who owns context?

There are a lot of problems whirling around in our Pandora’s paradise. They emerge furiously from that Box, untethered and awash in some kind of murky plausibility, at least to some.

The old journalistic model of ‘who, what, when, where why’ no longer can be relied on. Journalistic due process has served the people pretty well since the founding of the republic, along with in many nations and cultures that have committed to similar open, transparent institutions. Ultimately, coupled with models of historic investigation, grounded truths have provided a foundation for understanding our collective condition and setting future paths.

The foundation of our politic comes from the Greece of late antiquity. These were people that wanted to live in the abstract, not to suffer the prerogative of any particular person. Declaring the law to be their king, they nonetheless set up rules that were to apply within the borders of a physical space. The story of the birth of the polis, the grounding of politics and democracy, goes that a group of soldiers lays claim to a physical space, divides up spoils thus gained, and establishes rules of all kinds to determine how people can behave. Then, using popularity as the guide, temporary leaders are to be selected to oversee the process of running things, at least for awhile.

The model resolved some problems, ignored others, and triggered many more. It created a black hole of propositions that has triggered cynicism and more than a little violence. We have powerful communications engines spewing out absolute trash to quite willing victims. The geopolitical limits of Greek democracy and their inherent borders have been replaced by entrancing bits and bytes that have none.

Both models err in that they glob all subjects into one. Teenagers can thus defeat epidemiologists online, even in the field of epidemiology. All they need to do is shame them in some way on terms that have nothing to do with their knowledge and expertise. Part of the problem is that the subject in question is thus considered not in its own language, but using the tools of public persuasion, which in the current environment is a matter of shaming people using mean little tricks.

If the famous Dr. Fauci were to present his case to the general public in the languages of science that inform his public positions, it would fall of deaf ears. Literally, no one would know what he was talking about and the effort would fall flat. Worse even, he would run the risk of appearing arrogant and elitist. He would lose in the court of public opinion and amid the confusion of the enterprise, there is no appeal.

In this world in which all messages are globbed together for general consumption, it seems as though the only solution is to keep score on high influencers (ignoring the effects of bad behavior by others) and blocking access to those who demonstrate unremitting and undesirable patterns of behavior. Apart from that, the only filter for the world at large is a blinking cursor faced by authors of the good and the bad and the outreach of a person’s account.

What about the ‘who, what, when, where, and how’ (“wwwwh”) of things? Can they be brought together to save the day? That would be nice, wouldn’t it?

Tim Berners-Lee, a scientist in CERN, more or less the mother ship for physics, had this kind of thing in mind when he conceived of the Semantic Web. This was an important step of establishing flow patterns on the Internet that led to graphical browsers in the first place and the multimedia paradise that delights and vexes us now. The Semantic Web was to guide people through logical channels to clarify and enlighten, rather than stupefy and mislead. Much of what makes social media works is grounded in this, but there is little available capacity in support of wwwwh. The system has been purloined by smooth actors. You can surely identify these on your own.

How can this be resolved? What beside the blinking cursor of online fate can be used to support improved social and economic outcomes from electronic encounters and sessions?

Lets go through each element of wwwwh to see what might be done. Before this, I may refer to a concept that has been deemed worthy of some commentary. It is embedded in at least a few software products, including Microsoft Office products, where its use is documented under the name Globally Unique Identifier, or GUID. This is also more generally known as a UUID, a Universal Unique Identifier. With this technology, the location and derivation of Word files can be known after the fact under some form of wwwwh.

This is a helpful phenomenon. With good fortune, we can make use of it to arrive at some kind of desirable context in Web-mediated communication. The point is: Protecting context is possible. Semantics are a part of this, as was the goal of Tim Berners-Lee in the first place. Mathematics is important as well — providing precision if not semantic accuracy. These need to be combined, which is a subject for another essay.

Knowing that managing and maintaining context is possible by means of GUIDS and logic, it is important to understand the elements of establishing the validity of a story or situation. If we use the journalistic wwwwh as a guide, that is a good place to start. Thus, we consider the who, what, when, where, and how of improved, dependable Internet communication.

Who? The answer to this question can come in so many dimensions and has so many implications that it is difficult to know where to start. Are we talking about someone as an individual — an individual soul or identity, or are we considering a member of a group or an individual with particular skills or rights or a person acting in a role that may or may not require authorization. There are many questions to be asked, with potential validations, before anything like a blinking cursor should be offered up. There are also situational or contextual aspects to the question of “who”. That person may be a member of a group in question or in a family, or a paying customer or their may be other considerations that factor into the definition of “who”.

What? The power of now explodes social media sessions far beyond the intent of the creator. This can be mitigated to some degree by groups, particularly mediated groups, but even these grant power arbitrarily in the current framework. What is happening is largely dependent on the nature of the instigator — the what of the event.

Some groups represent interests or familial ties — or perhaps social preferences. Others are comprised of professional, trade, or craft knowledge and skill. What goes on may involve a variety of tasks unique to that field of interest or commitment. Where knowledge and skill are in question, the point of the group is to raise the general levels of performance of the group’s members. How are the best to be identified? That is what peer groups are for; that is what freedom of expression and inter-party competition are for.

When? This is similarly a complex issue. Something happening in one time frame may have wholly different characteristics that the same thing taking place at a different time. Time shifts similarly may not even be possible, or legal, or beneficial, or advisable.

Where? Location matters — except where it does not. The first inclination in the social media world is to ignore location, but this is not possible in the real world, where matter can collide, people can become hungry, and environmental conditions can become intolerable.

How? One problem with social media is that providing one means of connecting, one kind of ‘how,’ many of the other questions are skewed if not impossible to address. Their solution is to collapse all aspects of context onto themselves. Anything beyond the blinking cursor may be thus seen as an existential threat, so the system itself continues to be a major threat to multidimensional success by members of a complex society.

Context varies in all of these ways. How is this to be managed? This seems like a great deal of work, a series of directive elements that support the creator and channel the what of the session.

The answer lies in process. Process is how nature works. Processes represent time-oriented succession of events. They can be understood with study. Examples include orbits, gestation cycles, life cycles, seasons. Based on different conditions — different data inputs — they can behave differently, but the results are not chaotic, they can be learned and predicted.

It takes a great deal of work to make something simple. Study of process brings great rewards in this way — reducing the complex not to simplicity, but understanding. Nature is not going to simplify itself for our benefit. That work involved harnessing complexity as presented by nature and by multifaceted arrangements that people make among themselves. Society and culture are replete with processes that present themselves as traditions, expectations, rituals, habits, and holidays. This deepens into legal processes and traditions, everyday regulations such as in driving and financial transactions. Religions encourage ordinances, prayers, pilgrimages, and remembrances.

All of these represent a bundling effect on human endeavor. They introduce binding ties, means of remembrance, and physiological stabilization. In many ways, they are the stuff of live, infusing meaning and reducing risk.

The online conundrum can be brought under control by means of process. Using systems functions to ferret out GUID conditions before people get access to the blinking cursor, harm can be belayed, good can be encouraged, and sanity can be introduced into the computer-mediated world. It is possible that under some conditions a blinking cursor is not not be offered, but a series of options that better represent choices and means of communication.

Contexts can be considered like conceptual balloons. What may pass for productive discourse in one such bubble may make no sense or may be wholly unacceptable in another.

This is a better future for communication. In this way, society can gain leverage by means of computation. Who is to be the ultimate arbiter of such a world? Well, someone needs to support the legitimacy and efficacy of the system, but each balloon needs to be self-contained and self-sufficient otherwise. The context in each case needs to be representative of activities and interests that can establish their own democratic and meritocratic world. These need to be guided and protected so that they are not subject to the rumination or worse from someone who has not earned his or her way into the room, but is armed with a blinking cursor and an attitude.

That is the way to make use of context, to harness the richness and complexity represented in human endeavor. Leadership is needed, to be sure.

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Kenneth Tingey

Kenneth Tingey

Proponent of improved governance. Evangelist for fluidity, the process-based integration of knowledge and authority. Big-time believer that we can do better.