Context Shifting Is Easy

Today’s discussion asks that you perform a thought experiment.

Imagine that you are sitting in a room with a bunch of other people. All of your chairs face to the front of the room where there is a large desk. A young woman walks in with a stack of papers and places them on the desk. She picks up a piece of chalk from the desk, then, still standing, she turns to face all of you, smiles and begins to speak.

Right here I’m going to pause the narrative and ask that you consider the situation. Imagine it in your head for a moment. What is the context Ive described?

So what do I mean by context? Well if I were to say that our story so far is a very familiar context for most of us, one we all remember from childhood: an elementary school classroom, then here are some of the things you might expect to happen.

Having now stated a context, you, dear reader, should have images of yourselves sitting quietly in your desks while your teacher imparts some lesson. You also already know many of the basic ground rules of being in a classroom:

  • Pay attention to the teacher
  • Take notes
  • Don’t speak unless the teacher calls on you
  • Raise your hand if you have a question or comment and the teacher will call on you

Do you recognize this context? Feels familiar and confortable, right? Great! Let’s hold this thought now and count slowly to twenty while we let the memories of this context play about in our heads.

Really, start counting, or you won’t get the total effect:

1, 2, 3, 4, 5

6, 7, 8, 9, 10

11, 12, 13, 14, 15

16, 17, 18, 19, 20

Now let me throw you a little curve ball and tell you that you’ve been thinking about this in the wrong way. The situation I described is not really a classroom and that woman is not a teacher. She’s an actress, presenting a one-woman show about a famous teacher. The desk is a set, the papers just props. You are not in a classroom, you are in a theater made to appear as a classroom. This is just a play and you are a member of the audience. In fact, so there’s no doubt in your mind about this, you suddenly remember you put your ticket stub in your front pocket.

Did you feel that grinding sensation in your head as you read these last few sentences? That shifting from the classroom to the theater context – you should actually be able to feel it happen in your mind. The fact that even this little bit of information has allowed you to sense a shift in context is not a trivial matter. Usually, when you switch contexts like this, it is never so palpable or apparent. We humans are switching contexts all of the time, sometimes in the same sentence. It is one of our particular talents to recognize and adjust our conceptualizations at will when the context changes.

We have just completely switched contexts and you didn’t even need to lift a finger, did you? Just by my saying “this is a play” your expectations have completely changed. Now that we’re in the “performance context” what has happened to our mutual expectations. First of all, the roles have shifted, instead of a teacher, our woman is an actress, you, dear reader, are not students you are an audience. As a member of the audience (especially an audience witnessing a play about a teacher) here are some of the different expectations you may now have:

  • If you raise your hand, you may get an usher, but the actress will not respond to you
  • While you will still sit quietly and listen, the expectation is that at the end of the performance, you will clap your hands
  • The actress will provide the audience (hopefully) with an entertainment

So, shifting contexts is easy. And thus, I end this little monologue by pointing out that really, dear reader, we aren’t in a theater either. Instead, we’re sharing a context called “reading a blog entry”. I hope you enjoyed this little exercise!

Types of Information Flow

In a previous post a week or so ago, I riffed on an example of communication between two mountain hikers suggested by Barwise and Seligman (authors of a theory of “information flow”). I made the initial distinction between information flowing within a shared context (in the example, this was the context of Morse Code and flashlight signals), and information flowing from observations of physical phenomenon.
Both types of information movement is covered by Barwise and Seligman’s theory. I propose a further classification of various examples of information flow which will become important as we discuss the operations of individuals across and within bridging contexts.

Types of Flows

Symbols are created within a context for various reasons. There’s a difference between generic information flow and symbollic communication.
Let’s consider a single event whereby information has flowed and been recognized by a person. There are three possible scenarios which may have occurred.

1. Observation/Perception: the person experiences some physical sensation; the conditions of some physical perception leads the person within the context of that perception (and his mental state) to recognize the sensation as significant. In this case, the person recognizes that something has occurred that was important enough to become consciously aware of it’s occurrence. This is new information, but is not necessarily symbollic information.

2. Inference/Deduction: A person within the mental state corresponding to a particular context applies a set of “rules of thumb” over a set of observations (of the first type, likely, but not necessarily exclusively). Drawing on logical inference defined by his current context, he draws a conclusion which follows from these observations to generate new information. This is new information in the sense that without the context to define the rules of inference, those particular perceptions would not have resulted in the “knowledge” of the inference conclusion. They would remain (or they would dissipate) uninterpretted and unrelated forever.

3. Interpretation/Translation: This is the only type of information flow that happens using exclusively symbollic mechanisms. In this type of flow, the person receiving the flow recognizes not only the physical event, but also that the observed phenomenon is symbollic: in other words, that some other person has applied additional meaning to the phenomenon (created a symbol or symbols from the physical media by attaching an additional concept to it). In this type of flow, the perceiving person doesn’t simply register the fact of the physical event, but also recognizes that the physical phenomenon satisfies some context-driven rules of material selection and construction indicating that some other person intentionally constructed it. From this knowledge, the perceiver concludes, assuming they are familiar with the encoding paradigm of the sender’s context, that there is an intended, additional message (meaning) associated with the event. The perceiving party is said to share the context of the sending party if they are also able to interpret/translate the perceived physical sign to recognize the concepts placed there by the sender. In this scenario, the person recieving the message is NOT creating new information. All of the information of this flow was first realized and generated by the message’s sender. (This will be an important detail later as we apply this trichotomy to the operation of software.)

In all three types of information flows, as described by Barwise and Seligman, the flow is dependent on the regularities of the physical world. This regularity requirement applies from the regularity of physical phenomenon, to the reliability of the perceptual apparatus of the perceiver, all the way to the consistency of the encoding paradigm defined by the sender’s context.

Peirce’s Modes of Relationship

According to a terrific survey book on semiotics by Daniel Chandler that I’m reading now, Charles Peirce defined types of signs by whether they were symbollic, iconic, or indexical. If I understand Chandler’s summary, the first two examples of information flow I’ve described are at minimum dependent on Peirce’s indexical signs, alternatively called “natural signs”, because these are the natural perception of reality independent of context. Both the iconic and symbollic signs are only recognizable within a context making both fall under my “interpretation” type of information flow.

For the most part, I will treat the iconic and symbollic signs as the same sort of thing for now.

Example Interaction Between Parent and Child Context

In a previous post, I described in general some of the relationships that could exist between and across a large organization’s sub-contexts. What follows is a short description of some actual observations of how the need for regional autonomy in the examination and collection of taxes affected the use of software data structures at the IRS.

Effect of Context on Systems and Integration Projects

July 15, 2005

Contexts lay claim to individual elements of a syntactic medium. A data structure (syntactic medium) used in more than one context by definition must contain meaningful symbols for each context. Some substructures of the data structure may be purposefully “reserved” for local definition by child contexts. In the larger, shared context, these data structures may have no meaning (see the idea of “traveller” symbols). When used by a child context, the meaning may be idiosyncratic and opaque to the broader context.

One way this might occur is through the agreement across different organizational groups that a certain structure be set aside for such uses. Two examples would include the automated systems at the IRS used respectively for tax examinations and tax collections.

Within the broad context defined by the practitioners of “Tax Examination” which the examination application supports, several child contexts have been purposefully developed corresponding to “regions” of the country. Similar organizational structure have also been defined for “Tax Collection” which the collection application supports. In both systems, portions of the syntactic media have been set aside with the express purpose of allowing the regional contexts to project additional, local meaning into the systems.

While all regions are contained in the larger “Examination” or “Collection” contexts, it was recognized that the sheer size of the respective activities was too great for the IRS central offices to be able to control and react to events on the ground in sufficient time. Hence, recognizing that the smaller regional authorities were in better position to diagnose and adjust their practices, the central authorities each ceded some control. What this allowed was that the regional centers could define customized codes to help them track these local issues, and that each application system would capture and store these local codes without disrupting the overall corporate effort.

Relying on the context defined and controlled by the central authorities would not be practical, and could even stifle innovation in the field. This led directly to the evolution of regional contexts. 

Even though each region shares the same application, and that 80 to 90% – even 95% – of the time, uses it in the same way, each region was permitted to set some of its own business rules. In support of these regional differences in practice, portions of the syntactic medium presented by each of the applications were defined as reserved for use by each region. Often this type of approach would be limited to classification elements or other informational symbols, as opposed to functional markers that would effect the operation of the application.

This strategy permits the activities across the regions to be rolled up into the larger context nearly seamlessly. If each region had been permitted to modify the functionality of the system, the ability to integrate would be quickly eroded, causing the regions to diverge and the regional contexts to share less and less with time. Eventually, such divergence could lead to the need for new bridging contexts, or in the worst case into the collapse of the unified activity of the broader context.

By permitting some regional variation in the meaning and usage of portions of the application systems, the IRS actually strengthened the overall viability of these applications, and mitigated the risk of cultural (and application system) divergence.

Bridging Contexts

If it’s true that every human grouping can form its own context, how can communication occur between different groups? If one group defines a set of symbols using some set of concepts and a syntactic media that is different from those of another group, as a practical matter, how can the chasm be spanned? The answer is through the development of bridging contexts.

The following figure depicts several common strategies, each with its particular benefits and drawbacks.

Three Types of Bridging Contexts

Three Types of Bridging Contexts Within One Corporate Organization

There are three basic forms of bridging contexts. First and perhaps the most common in the real world is the creation of a specific, point-to-point bridging context through discussions/negotiations between the representatives of the two specific contexts. Most organizations take this approach because it simplifies, focuses and shortens the discussion, leading to faster turn-around. All application and data interfaces that are custom-built as point-to-point connections, no matter what the actual transmission protocol or language used, fall into this category.

The second form of bridging context occurs when two groups rely on a pre-existing, parent context to act as the bridge. The parent context may push a common context down onto the previously individual contexts, or the two contexts may appeal to the parent to resolve the conflict. In either case, the result can be that the child contexts become absorbed by the parent context, thus eventually what began as a bridging context becomes the entire context. These forms of bridging contexts are often common in such situations as corporate mergers, enterprise architecture initiatives, and business process reengineering projects.

The third form of bridging context is found whenever an organization selects a third-party standard as a communications protocol. In these cases, the organization creates a bridging context between itself and the external standard, including mapping its symbols into those of the standard. Theoretically, once completed, the organization can use such a bridging context to communicate with other organizations that have likewise built bridges to the standard. In practicality, however, it is not uncommon that organizations will bias their bridging context to their own point of view. When this happens, the external standard devolves into mere syntax, and other organizations must create new, subtle bridging contexts (a la form number one) in order to communicate successfully with this organization. This was a common occurrence in the heyday of Electronic Data Interchange (EDI), and still occurs today even with more modern, XML-based standards.

While proponents of standards bodies decry other approaches, it must be stated that the third form of bridging context is also the most complicated to develop, as well as requiring the longest amount of time to establish, and is often the hardest to maintain. The reason for this is that it requires so many more people to define, and for most situations, the key to its success is also its biggest drawback, namely that the context is defined externally to the organization. Thus, the interplay among the membership of the standards body creates the external context. The organization has a business activity establishes the local context. The humans involved in establishing the bridging context must be able to translate from the local context to the external standard. There is always a risk that these individuals will misunderstand the external standard and translate their local context to it incorrectly. In addition, the bridging context must be maintained constantly as changes occur both in the standard and in the internal organization. At least within the local context, it is more likely that a change will be noticed.

In addition to EDI and XML protocols, other examples of the third form of bridging context would include Semantic Web approaches, but also such mundane approaches as the use of ERP systems, or any other packaged application where a fixed syntactic media is presented.

Overlapping Context and Fuzzy Edges

Parent-Child Context Relationships: Intersection/Union

3/1/2005

The following figures depict some notional ideas for how to graphically describe some of the interesting relationships among contexts as they occur in a large, formal organization. The idea occurred to me that there must be some way of describing the similarities and differences in the concepts and discourse of the various subgroups of an organization (any organization). In the diagram, each oval represents a defined organizational group established by the business to allocate and accomplish all of the work necessary for the business to function. Each oval within another oval represents a specific group of individuals working in that business, until we reach the largest oval representing all employees in all groups. Even this largest oval exists in a larger context, that of the culture at large.

The discussion which follows touches on some incomplete ideas about how the concepts, signs and symbols within a given context relate to those of both smaller child and larger parent contexts.

Graphical depiction of Parent Child Contexts

Above: A Bird's Eye View of Nested Contexts; Below: Cross Section View of Nested Contexts

“Inheritance” of concept flows down from the broadest context down to the lowest context. This is not like the inheritance of properties in an object oriented paradigm, so the term may need to be changed. The idea really is that in the absence of an explicit statement of a concept in a lower level context, the members of the community may defer to the definition of that concept from one of the broader contexts that exist above them. In other words, the larger community of humans may have defined the concept and the more detailed context may neglect to reiterate the concept, preferring instead to use the larger context’s definition.

On the other hand, any concept defined in a broader context may be re-defined at a more detailed level. This may or may not be intentional, or even noticed by either members of the larger context or the more insular context. When noticed, it still doesn’t typically cause a problem in normal human discourse, as the humans are able to translate between each context, and hold in their minds each definition.

Contexts at different levels that do not share the same lineage may define a concept in different ways. If their members do not interact under normal circumstances, then there is still not a problem of communication or data integration. However, problems arise out of this layering and locality-driven conceptualization when the information must be shared, either tete-a-tete through direct interface (as happens in workflow integration problems) or through some roll-up to a common conceptual, parent context (as happens in reporting and business intelligence problems). This is the origin of the “single version of the truth” goal that many organizations now take as a given, best practice.

“Inheritance” of concepts flows down. What this means is that concepts defined in the parent’s broader context may still hold meaning in the more narrow child context. Exceptions/replacements are not limited to replacing concepts from the immediate parent, but can happen with any concept above. Each context layer, almost by definition, will define concepts that are uniquely their own, as well. This is one of the sources of intra-organization argument and confusion, as the same terms (syntactic medium) may be used to refer to two slightly (or even grossly) divergent ideas within the same corporate context.

Not every symbol will be meaningful in every child context, the process of transference of concepts can filter out concepts as well as borrow them. At each contextual layer, shared structure may be given different meanings. Lack of specificity/explicitness of definition at a layer does not imply automatic inheritance from above, as it can also reflect a vagueness of thought or lack of agreement about a fringe aspect.

The vacuum created, however, tends to favor the wholesale borrowing of the concept from the parent context.

Each context layer is complete in its own right. The sizes shown in the diagram suggest a size of content but this is just an artifact of the notation. A child context may define an infinite number of concepts over time, just as its parent context does. Theoretically, each context could be depicted or described in full without reference to the broader parent contexts.

Not every concept defined within any particular layer will wind up represented within some application software used by the humans participating in that context. However, if the humans in that context have acquired software to support their activities, the concepts within that system will naturally conform to the context, although they may force the context to be changed to reflect limitations and capabilities that the software imposes.

The reality is of course much more complicated than the diagram suggests. Since the context at each level is defined by the humans who inhabit and communicate within it, new members may introduce or adapt concepts from other contexts that are unrelated to the hierarchy of autonomy and control. Rather than attempt to trace the origin point of concepts across all contexts, it is recommended that these few concepts be considered  either of local origin, or as part of a bridging context between the context and the context of origin. This will have to be chosen only based on the value to be gained from either point of view.

Bridging contexts are new contexts established to bridge between some subset of concepts from each of two different contexts. These are established when new information communication between the two contexts is required. The bridging context can be recognized by the relative sparseness of the conceptual inventory, and by the fact that the lineage of the concepts is limited to two (or perhaps a handful at most) otherwise disjoint contexts.

Most transaction oriented interfaces, as well as any data interface between two functionally disparate systems (of any type) are defined within a bridging context limited to just the mediating symbols.

What a Context Is: Information Flow Theory

I’ve been busy lately, and let this discussion lapse for a bit. Let’s see if I can kickstart it again.

Sometimes, information flows from the physical world to a person who observes and interprets his perceptions to create and recognize new knowledge. Sometimes, someone creates a message in a physical medium and “sends” it into the world hoping that there will be another person who not only can sense it, but can recognize it as a message and can receive the information layered on top of the physical perception. The first is an example of simple observation and perception, the second is an example of communication within a context. While both rely on the perception of physical reality by the observer, they are fundamentally, though subtlety, different.

I have been reading a book on the mathematical theory underlying the “flow” of “information” in the real world, and while I don’t yet really understand the theory, there are some points the book is failing to make about context which I think are important.

Barwise, Jon and Seligman, Jerry, Information Flow: The Logic of Distributed Systems, Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Not that the book was intended to cover the concept of context, per se, being an attempt to lay out a mathematical/logical framework for describing the flow of information across, through and between physical systems. It does have an extensive section on “local logics” which when I understand it better may help me describe my own ideas about context in a formal manner.

What struck me, and forms the origin point of today’s discussion on contexts, is the example the authors use to introduce and illustrate the technical discussion. And as you will see, it is not just the example given, but variations of it that I will use to elucidate better what a context is and is not. To get to the meat of my thinking, here is their example, as written on pages 4-5.

Judith, a keen but inexperienced mountaineer, embarked on an ascent of Mt. Ateb. She took with her a compass, a flashlight, a topographic map, and a bar of Lindt bittersweet chocolate. The map was made ten years previously, but she judged that the mountain would not have changed too much. Reaching the peak shortly after 2 P. M. she paused to eat two squares of chocolate and reflect on the majesty of her surroundings.

At 2:10 P. M. she set about the descent. Encouraged by the ease of the day’s climb, she decided to take a different route down. It was clearly indicated on the map and clearly marked on the upper slopes, but as she descended the helpful little piles of stones left by previous hikers petered out. Before long she found herself struggling to make sense of compass bearings taken from ambiguously positioned rocky outcrops and the haphazard tree line below. By 4 P. M. Judith was hopelessly lost.

Scrambling down a scree slope, motivated only by the thought that down was a better bet than up, the loose stones betrayed her, and she tumbled a hundred feet before breaking her fall against a hardy uplands thorn. Clinging to the bush and wincing atthe pain in her left leg, she took stock. It would soon be dark. Above her lay the treacherous scree, below her were perils as yet unknown. She ate the rest of the chocolate.

Suddenly, she remembered the flashlight. It was still working. She began to flash out into the twilight. By a miracle, her signal was seen by another day hiker, who was already near the foot of the mountain. Miranda quickly recognized the dots and dashes of the SOS and hurried on to her car where she phoned Mountain Rescue. Only twenty minutes later the searchlight from a helicopter scanned the precipitous east face of Mt. Ateb, illuminating the frightened Judith, still clinging to the thorn bush but now waving joyously at the aircraft.

Was Judith Lucky That Miranda Knew Morse Code?

In a word, yes. In so many ways:

  • like the fact that Miranda was near the bottom of the mountain,
  • that she had a clear view of the side of the mountain where Judith lay,
  • that she had a cell phone at the car,
  • and most importantly, Judith was indeed lucky that Miranda knew the Morse code for “SOS”.

In fact, it was also lucky that Judith herself knew the code. So in the story as given, since Judith knew the code to use when she found herself in trouble, she used her light as the syntactic medium in which she encoded a message of her need for help. The fact that Morse code is a globally standard coding scheme simply meant that both Judith and Miranda both shared a common context without ever having met. The fact of their shared knowledge of the code provided the context by which Judith was able to get her message to Miranda.

What if Miranda Didn’t Know Morse Code

Things could have been much worse for Judith if either of them had no knowledge of the code, or if neither of them did. In addition, it was lucky that Miranda was somehow aware (or realized as she was watching) that a flashing light could be used to signify such a code, and that she then obviously deduced from the repeated pattern that someone was sending a message.

Imagine what might have happened if Miranda had seen the flashing light, but didn’t recognize it as a code, and therefore didn’t try to translate what she was seeing. Instead of reacting by calling for help, she might have thought to herself “Oh look, there’s a light up on the mountain. I wonder what that is?” but then gone on about her business.

In other words, Miranda could have observed her environment and perceived the flashing light but concluded that it was simply a physical phenomenon of no particular import. She may have perceived the signal but failed to recognize it as a message. In which case, this would show that Judith and Miranda had failed to establish a context for the communication.

What if Judith didn’t know Morse Code?

If Judith didn’t know Morse Code, perhaps she would still have started waving her flashlight around. Miranda having seen the light would have no reason to recognize a code.

Would this mean Judith would be out of luck? Not necessarily, if Miranda was also an experienced hiker. Miranda being in the context of hiking, it might occur to her that there shouldn’t be a light on that part of the mountain at that moment in time. She might think to herself that the random way the light was moving, plus its position on the mountain compared with where the safe trails were, added up to someone in distress.

In this case, a message has still been sent from Judith to Miranda, with the same result. The context that Miranda was thinking in plus her perception and prior knowledge of the mountain trails, allowed her to reach a conclusion that there was someone on the mountain in trouble. But it is important to note that Judith was not in the same context as Miranda.

In fact, if Miranda was a ranger, she may have been trained to look for and recognize the behavior of people in distress. In this example, we must conclude that Judith was not actually participating in the context with Miranda. It was Miranda’s knowledge of and mindset regarding her perceptions of the dangerous mountain environment which led her to deduce the existence of a person in trouble, not the fact of Judith’s trying to send a message.

Yes, this Judith tried to send a message, but she couldn’t have known that her random wavings would be recognized in anyway. Whereas the Judith who used Morse code actually knew of a context and encoded a very specific message using that context, with the expectation and hope that someone else might also understand it.

The difference in the two versions of the story is subtle. In both cases a message was sent, and in both a message was received and an action was taken. But in the first story, a bridging context in the form of Morse Code was called upon to carry a very specific message, while in the second story there was no bridging context. In the second story, it was entirely the perceptiveness and deductive power of Miranda’s “hiking Mt. Ateb context” which allowed her to create for herself new information: namely that “someone out there is in trouble”.

Once More, What If Judith Wasn’t In Trouble?

Let’s take one more variation of the story to enforce this last point. Let’s say that everything happened as described, except that instead of falling down the scree, Judith purposefully rappelled down the side of the mountain. And furthermore, that instead of clinging desperately to a thorn bush, that she had actually managed to establish a bivuoac in that peculiar outpost. In this version of the story, perhaps Judith is waving her flashlight around as in our second story, only this time merely to light her little campground while fixing herself dinner.

Now imagine ranger Miranda, trained as before and with a knowledge of the trails, but without prior knowledge of anyone camping where Judith found her perch. Using her same described skills of perception and deduction, Miranda may still come to the conclusion that there was someone on the side of the mountain in trouble, and would take the aforementioned steps to effect a rescue. Only she would find that Judith was not in need of help, and is now put out by the disturbance of her relaxation by the whirring chopper blades.

In this version of the story, Miranda is still in the same context as before, and uses her perceptions and the rules of that context to reach her conclusion. The fact is, and this second version of the story should make it clear, that while information did flow from Judith to Miranda just as before, we cannot call this information a “message” carried on a medium and in a context shared by Judith and Miranda. In other words, it was not a purposeful communication across a bridging context.

No, quite simply, in both of these latter examples, Miranda’s context guided her to her perception and the creation of the knowledge that Judith was on the mountain and in trouble (even if she was mistaken on this last point in the final story).

Summary

The fact that a person who presses a flashlight button does or does not intend to send a message – to communicate through that act -defines whether we classify the information flow as being a symbollic act or not. Perhaps the person does not realize or care whether there is another person watching for a flashlight in the dark. The factthat someone sees the light and acts in response does not mean that communication has occurred. Just because information has flowed does not mean that symbols have flowed.
This is a subtle distinction but an important one.

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