Context Is Always Critical

Got into an interesting back-channel discussion today in the South by Southwest session called “Beyond Algorithms: Search and the Semantic Web.”

I did write another post on the panel, so I won’t go into the details here, except to say that I found the backchannel more thought-provoking than the panel itself.

So when I got into the session, I realized I had left my power cord in the hotel room and I was running on reserve power. I sent a tweet to ask if anyone in the rather large ballroom had a Mac power cord I could borrow.

I quickly heard back from Tim Bentley, who was generous to share his power cord with me for the session. And so it was coincidental, certainly, when I noticed he’d come from Aardvark, a social search engine.

I think it was during the part of the panel where they were discussing how standard search engines don’t really know if they’ve answered your question, and Bentley tweeted to say this:

#beyondalgorithms panel is basically talking about how to do algorithmically what Aardvark is doing now socially

So a few minutes later, I started wondering about Bentley’s perspective on Wolfram|Alpha, which bills itself as a “computational knowledge engine” and promotes the fact that its information is curated by experts. I have a long-standing bias against people who purport to be “experts” — it’s a knee-jerk sort of reaction and I can acknowledge that.

On the panel, a tangential discussion cropped up about how much context matters in search. It was the sort of conversation that I was far more interested in than the topics they actually intended to discuss. So it got me thinking that it’s not expert curation or knowledge that I dispute — it’s so-called expert knowledge applied without regard to context.

There are so few questions in this world with a black and white answer. Once you go beyond 2+2=4, you need to know the context to answer. And then most expert opinion can sound downright asinine when it ignores context.

So that’s the kind of question I’d like to see explored deeply: How do we apply context to computer inputs [searches, using the computer, applications, whatever] in order to more accurately and efficiently reach solutions for users?

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