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!

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A Concept is Born: Sense Memory and Name Creation

June 24, 1988

Experience is characterized by memory of sensual information in all its detail. Analysis of this data can be retroactively applied. I can remember that:

“Yes, the sky was grey and windy just prior to the tree falling behind me.”

and therefore come to understand a set of events later, in some other context. Using this sensual memory aids abstraction and analysis because it acts as the raw material out of which abstractions can be built. Thus it is possible at a later date to reflect on past events and discover related occurences where before there was unorganized memory.

Learning of patterns is continuous:

“What was that?”

This question initially gets very simplistic answers when asked by toddlers and children. It takes nearly 20 years for humans to talk about philosophy in a formal way. But as slight variations to the simple occurences of events are experienced, the agent (learner) begins to organize subclasses of the same general event, especially if the social world provides him a useful distinction to use to characterize the subclass. In doing so, the subclass name becomes a synonym for the general idea.

Creative research by the agent (learner) is characterized by the creation of new distinguishing marks and the choosing of a class name for those marks. Communication with others regarding the subclass then becomes a matter of describing those marks, providing the short hand name, and obtaining agreement from the others that both the marks and the name are apropos.

And thus a concept is born…

“Anthropology”

For simplicity sake, let’s consider that Meaning, in the ultimate sense of the term, has NO STRUCTURE. In actual fact, it has been proposed that each human being will contain some physical characteristics which may ultimately be recognized as the structure of meaning within their heads. However, it is my opinion that whatever turns out to be that structure, there will be no commonality of the specific structures for similar concepts in two different people’s brains. So while individual human’s brain structures may be replicable after we reach the “Singularity”, they most likely will not be directly translatable. (In other words, I think there will never be a time when two humans can read the information in each other’s heads.) Each brain structure will have developed in similar fashions, but under the mathematical and physical laws of Chaos theory. In other words, each individual brain will be as unique unto itself as a snowflake.

January 26, 2007

Context Switching: Image and Identity

Prof. Lindsay Clark responded to a comment I made on her blog by describing her thoughts about the differences between self image, self identity and social identity.

If I may try to separate her concepts a little, I think that “self identity” I might define loosely as the “meaning I want to project to the world about who I am”. In other words, its the information I want to share, the things I want the world to think about me. 

I might consider that “self image” be defined as “what I think I mean to myself alone”. This being private, I would tend to keep a lot more of my interior personna to myself than I try to project. 

Leaving “social identity” to be defined as “what others think I represent or stand for (or, the meaning of me in the world)”. This would be the amalgamation of “messages received” not necessarily the messages I intended to send.

And while I think there would be strong relationships and hopefully a good bit of overlap among these three sets, they are necessarily not the same things.

The teenager example Prof. Clark chose is a good one because it shows these ideas in microcosm. She wrote:

The artifacts of this tend to be personal and may not be able to be recognized by anyone else. (e.g. a teenager who keeps the bottle cap from the soda he was drinking when he had his first kiss)….

The individual may consciously or unconsciously try to affect that perception through symbolic artifacts. (e.g. a teenager who displays a poster of the latest hit band in his locker). These artifacts, for obvious reasons, tend to be social symbols which are recognized by all people of that social group.

Here is an annotated short story in the voice of an imagined teenager to illustrate how I have made distinctions amongst these terms. My apologies to the professor if this is not exactly what she had in mind…

I have a poster of my favorite singer because I really am a fan of music, and music is an important aspect of who I am. Having that poster reminds me of how much I like music (self image). I put the poster in my locker because I want to tell my friends a message about how much I like music, and in particular how much I like my favorite singer (self identity). But this backfired on me because my peers and cohorts think my favorite singer is (fill in the negative connotation here) “babyish” and now my classmates think I am definitely the same (social identity).

If we take the poster itself and consider it as just a, what I call, “syntactic medium” (quickly, this is something that can be used to carry a projected meaning or concept), we can see there are three different meanings depending on the point of view and situation (context).

In my private context (the dialog I have with myself) I am excited, enthused and my sense of self is re-energized when I see my poster.

In the hallway at school, my friends (cohort context) see the poster and are reminded that I really like the singer. They may not like them as much, but being my friends, they have received the message that this singer is important to me (that I enjoy them), and they may now be on the lookout for other souvenirs of that artist on my behalf.

But in the larger high school environment (community context), my poster has now caused some of the disdain my peers hold for the singer to have been transferred onto me. Oh well, at least my friends understand me…

What I like about this story is that it also illustrates how easily we humans can shift from one context to another seemlessly. In the span of three sentences, our teenager can express what that one symbol represents in three different contexts.

As a software developer, I can tell you how miraculous that talent of ours is, because software cannot do it! Software (at least as the world currently develops it) would necessarily only understand one of the three contexts.

Software Applications As Perception

“The agent has a scheme of individuation whereby it carves the world up into manageable pieces.”                    K. Devlin, “Situation Theory and Situation Semantics”, whitepaper, 2004, Stanford University.

A software application creates and stores repeated examples of symbols defined within the context of a particular human endeavor, representing a perceived conceptual reality, and encoded into signs using electro-magnetic syntactic media. While the software may be linked through automated sensors to an external environment, it is dependent on human perception and translation to capture and create these symbols. Business applications are almost entirely dependent on human perception to recognize events and observations. That said, while the original “perceptions” are made by human agents, the software, by virtue of the automation of the capture of these perceptions, can be said to “perceive” such events (although this should be considered a metaphor).

Application design is in large part the crystallization of a particular set of perceptions of the world for purposes of providing a regular, repeatable mechanism to record a set of like events and occurrences (data). In essence, the things important to be perceived (concepts) either for their regularity or their utility by some human endeavor (context) will determine the data structures (signs) that will be established, and therefore the data (symbols) that can be recorded by the software system.

The aspects important to the recognition and/or use of these repeated events (e.g., the inferences and conclusions to be derived from their occurence) determines the features or qualities and relationships that the application will record.

Good application design anticipates the questions that might be usefully asked about a situation, but it also limits the information to be collected to certain essentials. This is done purposefully because of the fundamental requirement that the attributes collected must be perceived and then encoded into the symbology within the limited power of automated perceptual systems (relative to human perceptual channels).

In other words, because a human is often the PERCEIVER for an application, the application is dependent on the mental and physical activity of the person to capture (encode) the events. In this role, while the human may perceive a wealth of information, the limits of practicality imposed by the human-computer interface (HCI) guarantees that the application will record only a tiny subset of the possible information.

This does not pose any particular problem, per se (except in creating a brittleness in the software in the face of future contextual change), but just illustrates further how the context of the application is more significantly constrained than either the perceived reality or even the boundaries formed from the limits of human discourse of the event. This inequality can be represented by this naive formulation:

Μ(Ac) << Μ(Hc)

The meaning contained in the Application A defined by the context c is much less than the meaning (information) contained in the Human H perception of the context.

It is important also to note that:

Μ(Ac) is a subset of Μ(Hc)

The meaning contained in the Application A is a subset of the meaning contained in the Human H.

No aspect of the application will contain more information than what the human can perceive. This is not to imply that the humans will necessarily be consciously aware of the information within the application. There are whole classes of applications which are intended to collect information otherwise imperceptible to the human directly. In this manner, applications may act as augmentations of human perceptual abilities. But these applications do not of themselves create new conceptions of reality posteriori to their development, but rather are designed explicitly to search for and recognize (perceive) specific events beyond the perception of natural human senses. Even in these situations, the software can only recognize and record symbols representing the subset of possible measurements/features that their human designers have defined for them.

Hence, while software applications may be said to perceive the world, they are limited to the perceptions chosen a priori by their human designers.

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