The View From Here: A Change in Context

By Adena Schutzberg

This week, my local paper, The Boston Globe, informed readers via a note on the cover of TV Week magazine that this was the last issue of this very thin (27 page) magazine of TV listings. TV Week has appeared in the Sunday paper for as long as I can remember. The editors pointed readers to listings in the daily paper and online, and offered a deal for a discounted subscription to TV Guide.

You can point to the changing newspaper and TV markets as a reason the Globe decided to make the change. The last issue included no ads at all, save one for the Globe itself. Amusingly, the ad highlighted how the paper was available on Amazon’s book reader, the Kindle!

Why am I writing about a little TV index from the paper? And what does it have to do with geospatial technology? I think they are related because of one key concept: context. What TV Week (and TV Guide for that matter) offer are data in context. The context of importance for TV watching (or recording with your favorite device) is time. How does one show relate to another on the same night, and for those who like even more context, how does one episode on one night connect to the conclusion the next night? To answer that last question the single page of "today's TV" in the daily paper won't do. You've lost some context. You'd need a weekly print publication or an online tool or the cable company's onscreen "program guide" to answer that question.

The same loss of context, I want to suggest, may be occurring with the tiny screens of iPhones and other mobile devices, but also with printed maps. What maps do we elect to print these days? I recently printed a Google Map along with the directions to a road race located in a lesser-known town and one for a housewarming for friends who have moved out of the city. The problem is, those maps "end"; you do in fact fall off the sheet of paper. So, like the situation above, you need to turn to a set of collected maps (in my case the Universal Atlas of Metropolitan Boston - known in my family as "Al's Map" ) or again to an online site that provides more context.

I think we need to keep our eyes out for other areas of our lives where we are, consciously or not, losing context. At the same time new tools are providing context like we've never had before: Google Earth, Live Maps with Bird's Eye, Google Maps with StreetView, Photosynth. My goal here is to highlight a few places we can lose context if we are not careful:

Calendars - These simple, inexpensive devices order the days, one after another, and then overlay weeks and months. I use a calendar program on my computer but have not used the "wall type" for a few years. Instead of a traditional calendar I create a list for a training plan that runs a few months. I still have the list of weeks and how many miles I planned to train for my last marathon (back in May) posted on my door. That list certainly needed more temporal context, including simple "points of interest" like when we change the clocks.

Watches - When I was younger, having a digital watch was "cool." Today I have to say that most people with whom I interact have analog watches (those with hands) on their wrists. The only exception is when they participate in or watch sports. I love the way an analog watch divides up the day, providing temporal context in a way that digital ones cannot.

Record Albums - Back in eighth grade we had an assignment to write a review. We could review a book, movie, piece of art, record album, etc. I reviewed my very favorite album (Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme by Simon and Garfunkel). I had listened to it so many times, I knew which song came next and "found" the story that ran through it. With the current trend toward purchasing a song at a time from services like iTunes, that context, which I like to think was part of crafting an album, may be gone forever. The same may be true for spoken word recordings. I heard this week that some tens of thousands of people download the Sunday Puzzle podcast each month from NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday. Does that mean that they don't eat their vegetables listening to the news, analysis and other goodies for which the puzzle, to my mind, provides a nice "dessert" at about 45 minutes past the hour? Perhaps.

News - I know many people who set up "alerts" on their favorite news sites that automatically send e-mail when news breaks on a given topic or company. It's a great way to avoid actively searching through news sites or news site aggregators. Unfortunately, this removes any sense of context of other news, of news about related companies, of how other sources are covering the news. I'm old school on this one: I actively search news aggregators every day to dig up news about geospatial technologies. Many of the juicy tidbits I find are the news "around the news"; they are the context, rather than the story itself.

As users and promoters of the geospatial perspective and related technologies, we need to keep context in mind not only in our mapping tools and maps, but in time, in sight and in our ears. Without it, we lose too much. Context is not extraneous information; it's what helps us make sense of, and determine the importance of, those locations and times and sounds and news items that make up our lives.

Published Friday, October 17th, 2008

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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