Age of Context

Age of Context, Future of Experience

When my friend Shonali Burke of the public relations firm Shonali Burke Consulting first sent me an advanced copy of Robert Scoble and Shel Israel’s new book Age of Context, I had two thoughts.

Age of Context CoverMy first thought was what an interesting topic.

My second thought was how will I have time to read it; I can barely keep up with the customer service and customer experience books in my iPad now.

However, as I began reading, what I quickly realized is that Age of Context is more than anything, a book about the future of customer experience.

As Marc Benioff wrote in the book’s introduction:

“Today, we are in the midst of a customer revolution where the world is being reshaped by the convergence of social and mobile cloud technologies. The combination of these technologies enables us to connect everything together in a new way and is dramatically transforming the way we live and work.”

Scoble and Israel, who both bring a wealth of experience and topical immersion to Age of Context, identify five technology forces that are shaping and will shape contextual experiences:

  • Mobile
  • Social media
  • Big data
  • Sensors, and
  • Location-based technologies

It is the interplay of these five technologies that are at the heart of the coming age of context.

The Promise and Peril of Context in a Single Swipe

Ironically, as I was in the midst of reading this book, I experienced a perfect example of how context will be defining and changing our lives.

I was traveling in Nashville, TN and handed the cabdriver my credit card to pay the fare. He swiped it through an iPhone Square card reader. To my dismay, my email address auto-populated on his iPhone screen.

I have not been to Nashville in over 20 years, and the last time I can remember using that card in a cab was in Phoenix with a completely different company. Obviously, both the Phoenix and Nashville cab companies used the same third party vendor, a company that shared my personal information with the Nashville company without my authorization.

In this experience lies the great tension that we will all face in the age of context. The experience was both extraordinarily convenient and extraordinarily creepy.

Context Will Shape the Future Customer Experience

Age of Context is about the many ways the five forces will affect each of us in our daily lives.

From the standpoint of customer experience design, all of the five forces are going to be instrumental in the relationship customers have not only with the technologies themselves but also with our products and services. Being at the forefront of the age of context will provide an incredible competitive advantage to those companies who are able to use these technologies to enhance the customer experience.

Organizations should be looking at the five forces and their ever-evolving impact on consumer preferences and behavior as they ponder the individual application of the emerging technological possibilities. While certain industries will be more affected than others, all industries will have to embrace the coming contextual wave.

As Age of Context teaches us, the mobile device is at the heart of context. As long as people have their phones nearby when they interact with your organization, context will be possible and to some degree expected.

As the five forces spiral down in costs and up in ubiquity, organizations need to be ever-aware of where the trend lines might lead and what the future in their industry will look like for late adopters.

Yet, as Scoble and Israel so aptly point out, the future, in many respects, is now.

One thing I truly appreciated about Age of Context was the immense wealth of examples of how contextual services are developing across a broad array of organizations and industries. The authors have done their homework and just the stories of the differing ways organizations are innovating with contextual services would have been a fine read all by itself.

The examples provided in Age of Context are inspirational and provide a great sense of the possibilities of what the future will hold. For those on the front lines of customer experience, the examples will make you think more about what the future of your customer’s experience might look like, and the future of what your competition’s experience might look like as well.

Some of the contextual applications mentioned are mind-numbing. Cars that drive themselves, health-monitoring mesh tattoos, and self-cleaning clothing are but a few examples. Of course, author Robert Scoble has forever associated himself with the most notable contextual application extant, the wearable computing system known as Google Glass.


One notable area that I wish the authors would have explored is the degree to which technological inconsistency will be a barrier to the adoption of certain technologies. I will use two personal examples to explain what I mean.

Awhile back, my wife and I tested the cloud-based “to do list” system, Wunderlist. Wunderlist is a cloud-based app that allows for shared lists. We thought it would be a convenient way for two working professionals who are not always in the same place to add to the weekly grocery list.

In theory, we would just add to the list as we thought of things, it would upload to the shared lists, and whoever went to the store would have the list at their disposal — right on his or her phone.

The catch: It only worked sometimes.

I had no desire to go back and redo the research that had led me to Wunderlist to find a competitive service, so we abandoned the concept altogether.

You know what we use now? Email. It does not offer the same features, but 99.9% of the time it works.

A second example. About 70% of this post was written using a voice dictation app on my iPad. Apple Pages does not have voice dictation built-in, so this necessitated me speaking into the voice dictation app, copying the text into memory, leaving the app, and then going to Pages to paste the text.

It was an amazing blending of technologies, and still, it could have been better.

Why was only 70% of this post written this way? Because the cloud-based app went on the fritz. I received the message: “Error. You are not authorized to use this service. Please contact your service provider.”

After five attempts, I threw in the towel and reverted to good, old-fashioned typing.

Welcome to the age of intermittent context.

The barrier I see, not so much an obstacle as an impediment, is that certain functions come with high performance expectations. For instance, we expect our refrigerators to function 99.99 percent of the time. A self-driving car that depends on satellite and cloud processing for its basic functions will not work. Cars have to perform at better than 95%

Since this is but a blog post, I’m throwing out hypothetical examples and generalizing massively in order to make a quick point:

If the cloud is to be the engine that drives the age of context, the cloud needs to not suck quite so much.

The Spy Who Came in from the App

As long as there has been an Internet, there have been discussions about privacy — but in the Age of Context, the topic has taken on a whole new level of importance.

The authors describe the tension well:

“The larger looming issue is the very real loss of personal privacy and the lack of transparency about how it happens. The marvels of the contextual age are based on a tradeoff: the more the technology knows about you, the more benefits you will receive. That can leave you with the chilling sensation that big data is watching you. In the vast majority of cases, we believe the coming benefits are worth that tradeoff. Whether or not you come to the same conclusion, we all will need to understand the multiple issues that will be impacting the future of privacy.”

As a businessperson I love these technologies, but as a citizen and individual, I find them extremely concerning.

Admittedly, this topic is somewhat outside the scope of this book, and I am no more qualified to analyze the future geopolitical ramifications of these forces than the authors (less so I imagine).

While the authors openly label themselves as advocates for the age of context, they do an admirable job of discussing some of the real challenges and concerns that a life tracked and recorded can mean for personal privacy. The discussion is in the context of the present moment in the United States, and does not really contemplate a future that looks much different politically or economically than the present.

What could the age of context mean in the wrong hands? What could it mean if this century is forced to endure the economic angst and subsequent totalitarianism that created the unmitigated horrors of the 20th century? In that era, the intersection of the industrial revolution and man’s primal brain resulted in suffering and death on an unheard of scale.

The contextual forces described in Age of Context could never create societal upheaval, but how could these forces be misused if such an environment came about? What will it mean to have a record of your every movement, purchase, and social connection in that context?

The answer is both hard to know and frightening to contemplate.

Buy It Now

I can give no grander compliment for this book than the following:

Age of Context made me think.

It made me think about technology, about business, about customer experience, and even about the future of the republic.

Scoble and Israel are both thoughtful writers, and their mutual passion for their topic is evident in the pages of Age of Context. They have a admirable knack for weaving together the interplay of all of these technologies and showing the effects, both current and hypothesized, that the five forces will have on consumers.

Age of Context is not a playbook for the future of customer experience design — it’s too early for that — but it does map out the field where the game will be played.

So, put on your Google Glass, text your tub to draw you a bath, and get ready for your car to pick you up — the age of context is upon you, and you had better prepare your team for the coming wave.


Authors and Disclosures

Co-author Robert Scoble is the Startup Liaison Officer for Rackspace, and he is building a dynamic online community at building43. Robert also blogs about all things tech here.

Co-author Shel Israel is a consultant, author and speaker who has helped hundreds of companies tell their stories more effectively by writing content and as a presentation coach. Shel is also a columnist and writes The Contextual Beat, which focuses on the tech industry.

Disclosures: This review was based on an advanced review copy of Age of Context and might refer to things that were changed before final publication. Also, I am a loyal customer of Rackspace, Robert Scoble’s employer, and went as far as to interview a Rackspace employee, Rob LaGesse, for our Inside Customer Service series. That, however, is as far as the connections go.


By Adam Toporek. Adam Toporek is an internationally recognized customer service expert, keynote speaker, and workshop leader. He is the author of Be Your Customer's Hero: Real-World Tips & Techniques for the Service Front Lines (2015), as well as the founder of the popular Customers That Stick® blog and co-host of the Crack the Customer Code podcast.

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