The Age of Context
My wife and I have been experimenting with the Fitbit Flex for the last few weeks. For those unfamiliar, the Fitbit Flex (pictured below) is a small wireless dongle that is inserted into a rubber wristband and worn throughout the day. It tracks the amount of steps you take, similar to a pedometer. It also tracks your sleep cycle throughout the night. This information is collected and charted via their website and compared to your health goals.
To issue an initial disclaimer, the technology is not perfect. I wore the Fitbit one afternoon while digging up some old bushes in our yard and it registered my arm movements as walking a couple of miles. The sleep tracker also relies on your movement during the night to determine your sleeping patterns. From their website:
- During sleep mode, when your body is completely at rest and unmoving, your Fitbit tracker records that you are asleep.
- A restless state of sleep indicates that your body transitioned from a very restful position with little movement to movement, such as turning over in bed. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you were fully awake or cognizant of your movements, but it may indicate that you were not getting the most restful sleep possible at that time.
- When your tracker indicates that you are moving so much that restful sleep would not be possible, your sleep graph will indicate that you were awake.
So far this gadget has mostly been an enjoyable toy but it has also provided some fascinating insights. For example, if the data is accurate I walk about 17 miles per week while at work (this is what happens when the building is 800,000 square feet and you have responsibilities on both ends of the facility). It also tells me that I sleep soundly most nights and every morning I can see exactly how many minutes I was awake during the night. It has become a personal challenge to see how low I can get that number.
What seems to be much more important than this specific technological tool is what it says about the future. Back in January I wrote about tech guru Robert Scoble and his prediction of the coming Age of Context. To recap, Scoble defines this by five characteristics:
1) wearable computing
2) big data and data computation
4) social media
5) location-based technology.
The Fitbit falls under category 3. There are other sensor devices on the market that measure all sorts of other health statistics as well as things like air-quality sensors and sensors you can put in your potted plants to analyze chemical levels in the soil.
Big data is the future of business. It is already here of course as companies are now able to mine through layers upon layers of information. I recently learned that for a very reasonable fee you can obtain data through credit reporting companies that allow you to determine the net worth and charitable giving habits of a potential donor to your cause. Google has been using keywords in emails and online searches to create targeted ads for several years. Companies are scrambling to make the best use of this information.
Social media needs little explanation here on the pages of an online magazine. Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites reveal much about out personal lives. We all know the stories now about potential employers checking our online profiles before hiring. Colleges are doing the same. As I noted in my previous post on this subject there is a lot of cultural change tied up in social media. Our kids’ idea of privacy is radically different than our own and this trend is not likely to change.
Location-based technology will provide us with a contextual experience like never before. The default settings on most smart phones these days are constantly transmitting location data. If we are users of established sites like Foursquare we are adding additional layers to the data pool. Paired with our mobile devices and new technology like Google Glass retailers will be able to offer us targeted discounts and suggest all sorts of experiences. In the coming years you will walk into a hotel in another city and they will know enough about you to suggest restaurants, point you to the gym, partner with tourist attractions to offer discounted tickets based on your likes and dislikes and so on. I have a pet theory that location-based technology will actually harm marriages as spouses will quickly be able to determine just what their partner is up to when they are apart. Or it may actually improve marital fidelity.
Moore’s Law is the observation that over the history of computing hardware, the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years. Scoble has noted that there is a corollary to this with the Age of Context. The number of social media posts and location-based pings are doubling every 18 months. Currently there are over a billion Tweets sent out every 36 hours and Facebook posts are far greater.
We are on the verge of an explosion in technological change, happening at a much faster rate than anything we have seen previously. I am not exaggerating when I suggest that this is going to be a far more impactful era than what we saw with the internet boom over the last 20 years. The reason for this is that it will be much more integrated into our lives. Companies have had two decades to learn how to use the internet to their advantage. Now they will have hundreds of entry points into our lives that will give them access to us 24/7.
For me personally, I am scrambling to see what this might mean for my career. As an aspiring professional writer the Age of Context gives me the ability to craft a specific message for my tribe. The trick is to plug into that ability in the right ways. In my day job as a business professional, I want to see how this technology can help us do our job better. Sensors will allow us to increase efficiency in our operation. There will also be ethical questions about whether or not we can use that same technology to examine data about how our employees behave themselves. It is not a big leap to image we can link a sensor to a work station and determine just how much an employee is actually working while at their post.
For more on the Age of Context, below is a five-minute video where Scoble discusses the concept and gives some real world examples of how this is already happening.
Mike Dwyer is a freelance writer in Louisville, KY. He writes about culture, the outdoors and whatever else strikes his fancy. His personal site can be found at www.mikedwyerwrites.com. He is also active on Facebook and Twitter. Mike is one of several Kentucky authors featured in the book This I Believe: Kentucky.