The Context Of Our Lives

The Context of Our Lives --- ?RonGoldman 29 Nov 2001

. . . you wish to create a technology that supports each person's unique, individual way of working and living as they shift from one task to another, move from location to location, and interact with various other people.

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Our lives are varied and complex---actions do not occur in a vacuum, but in the context of other actions. At any moment we are focused on the task we are working on. Other tasks that we may have pending are temporarily forgotten.

Most software is focused only on the task it performs. It does not include any awareness of activities the user does outside of it. As a result programs are constantly acting inappropriately. Ideally when we pick up the phone, if the radio is playing it should lower its volume. If we are intensely concentrating on a task, perhaps the phone should not even ring---unless the call is very important.

The ideal butler is highly attentive to your needs and also unobtrusive in carrying out his activities. Our technology is totally ignorant of us and what we are doing; all it "sees" are its needs and actions.


Build programs that recognize the different contexts and act appropriately. They must include information that goes beyond the narrow tasks they perform, so that those tasks can be fitted into the larger context of our lives.

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Our machines need to cope with many people using the same machine---MultiplePersonalities---and one person using many machines---OnePersonManyMachines. They must respond differently if we are present or absent---AwarenessOfPresence---and depending on when and where we are using them---?TimeSensitiveAndLocationSensitive. They need to understand who we are willing to interact with---PrivacyGradient and that while sometimes we do not want to be interrupted, other times we welcome a break in what we are doing---InterruptionGradient.

They also need to understand the difference between messages from other people as opposed to another machine acting for another person---PeopleTalkToPeopleMachinesTalkToMachines.

One way to convey the larger context is to use MetaInformation.

The Context of Our Lives --- RichardGabriel 8 Dec 2001

. . . we need to communicate (NoManIsAnIsland), we need to use tools sometimes to do that (the telephone, letters, computers), but no one wants tools to dictate how to live . . .

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Our lives are varied and complex. Actions don't occur in a vacuum but in the context of our lives, other actions, situations, and moods. Our lives change-sometimes dramatically and suddenly. But tools just sit there. They were designed long ago and far away. And their designers assumed you would be using them in a particular context.

But software isn't like an ordinary tool. It can be aware of your context or situation-especially if you you are willing to tell it. If only its designers would think of this. The failure of many software tools is based on assuming a fixed context.

For example, some folks like to automatically notify others that they are away-on vacation, on a business trip, etc. So they set up their emailers to auto-email an away message. But they're also subscribed to email lists. Uh Oh. Now everyone on the list gets a message about someone being away-every time they send a note. How embarrassing.


Try to build the textual electronic communications system so that it recognizes different contexts and acts appropriately. Our software tools are like our surrogates. How embarrassing when they act funny.

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AwayMessages are an important first step in recognizing context. AwarenessOfPresence helps the textual electronic communications system react to incoming messages based on whether we are there or not. Sometimes we'd rather be left alone (GoAway, PrivacyGradient). We also use many machines and want them to act as one (OnePersonManyMachines) or want to act in different roles with the same machine (MultiplePersonalities). Sometimes we work with others (Workgroups {GroupDiscussions}, SmallWorkGroupsComeAndGo). And sometimes we need to shift how we communicate in midstream (EaseOfShiftingModality).


Last edited December 24, 2002
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