Sunday, September 22, 2013

Pre-release book review: Age of Context: Mobile, Sensors, Data and the Future of Privacy/ Robert Scoble & Shel Israel

It was a privilege to be able to review a pre-release copy of Scoble's and Israel's latest book, Age of Context (AoC).

Age of Context: Mobile, Sensors, Data and the Future of Privacy

This was what I posted at, leaving in an extra part that I edited out from the post:

Reading this book was like reading about technological possibilities in Scifi stories. Except, the technologies are already here and in use. By millions of people like us.

I reviewed a pre-release copy of the book, at a time where my mind was distacted by other stuff. Tackling over 270 pages of text wasn't at the top of my list. I was worried I wouldn't be able to read this carefully and give this a fair review. But I need not have worried.

Scoble and Israel did not just write a book. They told stories. That's what I liked about this one. The opening chapter has a title "Storm's Coming". It sets the tone that this book unabashedly seeks to entertain and inform.

A quote from their opening chapter: "Our perfect storm is composed not of three forces, but five, and they are technological rather than meteorological: mobile devices, social media, big data, sensors and location-based services."

Smart homes and apartments, smart appliances; contextual, wearable systems that know our location, our current activities, our up-to-date preferences. Personal Contextual Assistants (PCAs) that, less than a decade ago, we would call it them the stuff of Scifi and Fantasy magazines.

Google Glass - how it works (but it stopped short of describing why some people feel that it works).

How one NFL football team/ stadium is progressively implementing tech & data to anticipate customer purchase behavior. Save time for customer, faster sales, superior customer experience.

These tech combos work, because we are creatures of habit.

How a company like VinTank harnesses and analyses data from social media conversations to identify high value consumers. Using data for its own target marketing.

Data from not just buying or consuming but merely showing an interest it, like touching/ viewing something.

The automobile as a AoC device.

How some branches of government are utilizing data, computer simulations, visualization technologies/ 3D models to increase the level of engagement with citizens.

A sand grain-sized sensor the works with a skin patch to monitor the patient's condition.

That quote from the opening chapter made me wonder, at first, if I would learn anything new. None of those terms were new to me, since I read a fair bit of Science fact and fiction. Besides, we already have our Apples and Samsungs. We are no strangers to wearing computing devices on us. So what would be new to me?

Quite a bit.

For example, I now see Map apps with greater insights now. Specifically, the motivations behind companies like Google and Apple in developing map services. And what is needed to make such services and apps work.

One chapter discussed what the convergence will mean in terms of business and marketing. It suggests that the real business application would be in information arbitrage; micro-commissions for making real-time, context-specific business referrals to customers.

Like the Scifi stories that I enjoy, Scoble and Israel are able to make me relate to how individuals and society reacts to, or are being affected by technology, consciously or otherwise.

For example, most people will choose to drive the car themselves, even when they know the machine can execute instructions with greater precision and efficiency. Or the discomfort some individuals feel after discovering how third-party services have decided, without their permissions, to share personal information -- even if that sharing appears to be benign.

The book comes across as a result of "pragmatic field research", presenting information and facts not in empirical terms but as stories. There are real names of companies and individuals. Some chapters go deep into the subject, while some chapters profiled an overview of the technologies and companies. I liked that alternating treatment, between depth and breadth.

While the authors do not hide their bias towards the benefits that this convergence offers, they are not blind to potential pitfalls. The final chapter talks about how the companies, covered in the book, deal with personal data they collect. The authors talk about what they call "the sneaky stuff".

Overall, the authors seek to assure readers that 'the storm is coming' but we're not entirely helpless.

"We hope you can use this book as a framework to understand the contextual developments that will take place over the next few years. We hope you take it in context and that it will help you adjust to the changes in your work and your life."

I think this book would enable readers to have a greater awareness of what is happening the next time we receive alerts or recommendations from companies, or from our social networks, or when we use apps. Not that the companies are trying to be insidious (though one would have a greater awareness of how they could be). It is always useful to know how things work. When things break, we might be better prepared for it or at least understand why.

I enjoyed the overview and insights to technologies being developed in the USA, which will inevitably spill over to the rest of the world. A few were obvious to me while a large number were not.

The writing is crisp and the pages flow. The writing style reminded me of magazine articles like Nature, and Popular Mechanics: informative, entertaining, and accessible without dumbing down.

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