Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Information Without Context

 I may have mentioned previously how it has been bothering me lately that in this world of cameras everywhere and tweets or text messages as a major form of communication that people, myself included, are reaching snap judgments about all sorts of things based on tiny fragments of information without any real context.  I understand the nature of this impulse and that people have neither the time nor the attention span to truly research most issues, but it still strikes me as irresponsible and potentially dangerous.  

In particular, camera phones seem to perpetuate a near-Orwellian danger to individual privacy.  They also perpetuate a notion of "guilty until proven innocent" that I completely disagree with.  For example, if I am caught texting at work I will be disciplined.  Fair enough.  A picture of me at work holding a cell phone could get me suspended or worse.  However there is no way to know from a picture exactly why I might be holding a cell phone in my hand.  Perhaps I'm simply checking the time.  Perhaps I found it and am checking to see if I can turn it on and ascertain it's rightful owner.  Perhaps I forgot to set it to "silent" and am doing so now.  There's no way to know for sure.  However, should a picture of me holding a phone surface, people will automatically assume that I'm using it for nefarious purpose without any other evidence.  A picture may be worth a thousand words, but it can also have a thousand different interpretations.

Similarly, a text or tweet along the lines of "I saw your girlfriend at the mall with some guy" could be a relationship ender without any other information.  And don't even get me started on news of world events in the form of single sentences (whether they be headlines, tweets or 24-hour "news" stations).  That's a whole different blog post.  Actually, my friend Marchije goes into more detail about that in her blog.  Check it out.  

Anyway, all of these are simply examples of information out of context, open to many different interpretations, most of them wrong.  Worse, people can often purposely plant vague and manipulative "facts" in this way simply to influence those of us who care.  I could go all out conspiracy theory here but you get the idea.  This cannot be good for the human race.

With these thoughts all muddled up in my brain I then started thinking outside the "technology" box and applying this idea to humanity at large.  It's no secret that I like to search for answers to philosophical debates and that I also yearn for understanding.  With that in mind it didn't take me long to start wondering how far this lack of context problem goes.  Can I ever expect anyone to truly understand the things that I do and say without them having the same context (in this case my life) as I?  Can I ever really understand anyone?  I know I've done things in the past that have completely baffled even my closest friends since they couldn't see the reasons why.  They hadn't had the same experiences I had to lead them to the same decisions.  Similarly, I haven't understood all of their actions and rationals.  Now I'm starting to wonder if every interaction I've ever had with another person could be fit into this concept of information without context.  Even spending 24/7 with another person wouldn't allow us to necessarily understand one another.  Think of all the little thoughts and musings that go through a persons mind every day and aren't shared, even if that person is sitting right next to another.  We're all alone in our own heads all the time, and without the ability to really see everything going on in another person's mind, to see the full context of their lives and ideas, it's impossible to ever fully know or understand another human being.  No man is an island and yet every man is.  Everything we say or do is ripe with the possibility of misunderstanding.  In another persons' eyes we're all simply massive collections of information without context.


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