A mind is like a parachute
It might save your life,
but you have to know how to use it first.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Time to Put Context into Context

What is Context Really?

We have said that context is everything, and we have talked about frameworks and how signals take place within a context, but we have really neglected the details of what context really is.  So far it has seemed like a cheater term used to capture anything we wanted to explain but didn't have the time for.

So it's about time we took a closer look at what we mean by context and how it figures into information, perception, and action.

Context is Information

The easiest and most circular treatment we could give to the concept of context is that it is merely all the other information that surrounds any piece of information in question. Context is the "background" or "circumstances" which surround any given event or piece of data.  So viewed this way, the context for any piece of information is simply all the other information it is surrounded by.   As useless as this sounds, it is partly true, and it actually turns out to be surprisingly powerful in action.

Let's look at this through the lens of what we have already said about information theory and how the power of information relates to the surprise it delivers.

Look at this sentence, uttered by a fictitious 14 year old:
Bob is always borrowing money and never paying it back and then he lies about it later and says he never took it in the first place.  He is such a narlyball.
The first thing that jumps out at us is that there is a word we do not know.  The term "narlyball" is not in our vocabulary.  (It shouldn't be -- I made it up.)  So if we have never heard the word before, simple logic would suggest that we can't know what it means until someone defines it for us.  But within the quotation we cited (invented), there is a definition or at least a suggested definition.  The logical structure of the two sentences is a description of Bob's behavior and then a label that describes what Bob is like.  So when we marry to the two together, we know that, whatever else narlyball means,  it seems to be an uncouth person -- possibly a liar, a moocher, or just someone we don't want to be with. A loser.

But even in isolation, the word narlyball could contain some clues.  If the teenager had simply said, "Bob is a narlyball" we would probably have been given a negative impression.  Why?  Well first the term "narly" seems to suggest "gnarly" and is something tangled or challenging or nasty.  The second term "ball" would suggest a collection of "gnarly" or an objectification of a person as an inanimate object (c.f. "tool" or "knob").  So taken together "narlyball" suggests, even just by its sound, a collection of tangled things or a difficult object.

Now the problem here is that teenagers have a long history of intentional irony.  That is, to the extent that teenagers have a long history of anything (the concept of teenagers as a cultural group only goes back to the 40's which will be a blog entry for another day), they have a habit of coding their language  to make it intentionally difficult for outsiders to understand.  So in the 80's "gnarly" was actually something cool or special.  In the 70's to be "bad" was to be very good, and in the 90's to be "sick" was to be exceptional.  One could say "that jump was SICK''  or even "She has a SICK body" and despite the literal meaning of the phrase, it would be intended as high praise.

But even the potential snag in our exploration of what the context of words can mean happens to point to a greater sense of context.  For the word SICK means something else in the context of certain social groups.  But we'll get back to that.

For now we will focus on how information is given meaning by the information it is surrounded by.  Or in a specific case, words are given meaning by the words which surround them. Which is to say "text" is given meaning by the "text" it is "with".   Con-Text literally means, "with text".

Textile, Texture, Text, and Context

The latin verb Texere means "to weave".  It is where we get the words: textile, texture, and text.  "Text" are words which are "woven" or composed.  Con (with) and Text (woven) is the stuff that something is "made with", "composed of", or simply "woven with".  In other words, context is the environment surrounding something.  But in an informational sense, how can we tell what "surrounds" something.  What other information is "woven into" the information we are dealing with?

Relational Databases, Linked Data, and Associations

Beyond the words surrounding other words in a sentence or two, there is another way that information is readily associated with other information.  This is through relationships that data shares with other data we have already created context for.  In other words, each new thing we learn is woven in with all the stuff we already know.  And how it is woven in has to do with the order and patterns into which we have placed our other knowledge.  To take a crude example, when we see the Asparagus Berry, we might think of other small round redish-orange fruits like the Huckleberry.  Before we get two far with context in the sense of the human mind, though, it may be helpful to explore how computers can organize data and what they can do with that organizational scheme.

Probably the most common strategy for dealing with a lot of computerized data is the "relational database". So let's look at this for a second.  Now first of all this is a "database", which is nothing more than a bunch of data all arranged as "records".  Each record contains related information about some person or thing.  For example, if you are on a mailing list for a shoe store, there would be one record that had your name and address, an account number assigned to you by the store and probably an email address:
407987...John Doe... 123 Main St....Metropolis... New York...JohnDoe@Gmail.com
(I don't know the zip code for Metropolis, so I ignored that data.)  Now since it is a shoe store, the company database also contains entries for their inventory.  These entries contain data that describes the product by brand, size, color, name, price, or whatever, usually including a part number (or Product ID):
100456B13...Ballerz....Big Boy...Blue...Size11...$85.00
Now the magic of a "relational" database is that there is another set of data that "relates" these two other sets.  In this case, that is the purchase database, containing the Account Number of the customer (you) and the Product ID of what was purchased, as well as some other useful data like the date of the transaction:
What this data structure does is allow the computer to keep track of the fact that John Doe of 123 Main St in Metropolis ordered a Size 11 of the Ballerz shoes in Blue on May 20th without having to duplicate all that data every time a sale is made.  By keeping data that is specific to each kind of record grouped together, each database can be KEYED to a certain field (e.g. Account Number) and  that field acts as a stand in for all the other data associated with that record.  So every time the Number 407987 appears in other places, such as the purchase database, it stands for "John Doe, 123 Main... etc".

This data storage strategy is fairly compact and very versatile.  Not only can it easily produce a list of all the shoes you have ever bought (by searching the purchase database for your Account Number) but it can also produce a list of all the people who ever bought Size 11 Ballerz in Blue (by searching the purchase database for the Product ID "100456B13").  It can produce a list of all the products sold on May 20th by searching the purchase database for that date.  And it can produce any number of other useful reports, such as how many people who live in Metropolis have bought shoes within the past six months.

The relational database is a powerful concept.  The example above only scratches the surface of what it can accomplish, but it does give us at least a basic idea of the concept.  We'll consider that concept now when we explore the mind.

The Mental File Cabinet

No one is actually certain exactly how the tremendous amounts of information we experience in our lives is organized in the brain.  Any simple analogy drawn on comparisons to file cabinets (for example) or even computers quickly breaks down in terms of describing real world behavior.  The brain does not simply file each piece of data into a drawer and pull it out when needed.  If it did, we would never forget anything and we would always react the same way to identical information.  In short, we'd be nothing but information storage machines.  We are certainly not that.

But the brain clearly does store information in some fashion.  And the relational database analogy applies fairly literally in some very basic ways (and it doesn't apply at all in other ways we'll get to later).

When someone says "wedding dress" to you, it is more than a simple piece of clothing worn at a ritual.  If our brains were merely mental file cabinets, all we would think when someone said "wedding dress" was what the online dictionary has to say:
A gown worn by the bride at a wedding
Probably not what you imagined.
But we take the mention of a wedding dress and imbue it with much more than that.  We may picture a dress.  We may remember a recent wedding (or our own wedding).  We may think of a bridal boutique.    We may even assess the sexual history of the bride in order to assign our imaginary color.  Think on that for a second.  Someone says two words that describe an object and we go mentally prying to the past of someone we may barely know.  That's a kind of relational thinking that goes way beyond what the shoe store database does with its data.

There is possibly an emotional component as well.  We may get excited or depressed or angry or relieved or anxious, or maybe a combination of those things, depending on what the mention of that garment means to us at that given time (again, of course, because of the "context" which is why we are talking about this to begin with).

But even though the process is complex and the associations are many, we do in fact "KEY" the concept of a wedding dress to other "records" in our brain.  If we picture a dress when we hear the word, that mental image can only be called up because we have associated it with the words.  We don't imagine a wedding dress when someone says "chocolate milkshake".  So there must be some kind of associative filing going on.

So too it is true that if we allow the mention of the dress to trigger memories of weddings or people or events or emotions, then this had to come from somewhere.  The exact way the phrase "wedding dress" is woven into our mental patchwork is never fixed and always related to our own personal experiences. But except for very few people, the words will mean more than simply their definition.

Take a moment to think about each of the following phrases or concepts.  Imagine (or recall) something for each one.  Just three or four seconds for each one:

    rusty pitchfork
    dented car door
    starving baby bird
    clumsy drunken guest
    pushy salesperson
    elephant driving a sports car down on a mountain road with the top down
    muddy bootprint
    important piece of mail
    unfinished project

No two people are going to have the exact same response to any one of these phrases, let alone all of them.  Yet each of them triggers something in our mind based on how we have organized our mental data and where "our mind has been" lately.

For example, I did not grow up on a farm.  I have probably held a rusty pitchfork in my life, but I can not really recall it.  To me the phrase conjures up a fairly stock image of a pitchfork resting against the wall of a barn near its open door.  I can see there is a white farmhouse partially in view in the distance.  Maybe this is something I saw on TV or in a movie at some time.  Maybe I am recalling a barn I saw once and inserting the pitchfork into the image because in my mind, the word "pitchfork" implies a barn.  I do not know why I picture what I do.  I only know what I see.

On the other hand, if we get to "pushy salesperson" I am brought to a specific memory.  The event was several years ago and I had not thought about it for a long time until I chose the phrase more or less randomly for my list.  I was buying something -- I don't even remember what -- and the sales clerk was trying to get me to buy the extended warranty.  The problem was that she would not take "no" for an answer.  I started to get very angry by the time I had convinced her that I was not interested.  She kept responding to my "No thanks... Not interested... I am really not interested...I do not want that..." with what she must have felt were more and more compelling arguments for why I needed the extended warranty.   The story is not important, except that it left enough of a lasting impression on me that this woman (whose face I can't even really remember) is apparently now my poster child for "pushy salesperson".

It is perhaps interesting to note that some of these phrases call up a more or less static picture with no emotional content and no noise or motion, while others have an almost video quality to them -- motion, sound, and emotional response. (I can't tell you how your mind works.  I am only saying how these things affect me.)

Dude, where's my car?
Moving down the list, we get to the elephant in a car.  Few of us will have a specific memory to draw upon here, so what do we do?  I suspect my mind draws upon stock advertising images of cars to get a mountain road with a car moving down it, and then I "CGI" in an elephant at the wheel in much the manner that it would appear in an amusing commercial -- like perhaps a commercial for auto insurance.

Individual responses will vary, but it is interesting to note that we can all react and imagine this scene if we try even though none of us has ever seen such a thing.  So our mental system of organization is more than just memory -- it allows for us to shift around ideas and images and moods and associate new things in new ways.  We may rely on memory  for the components of our imagination (if I had never seen at least an image of an elephant I would have more difficulty imagining the seen), but the act of pondering or recalling is a creative act alongside of a mechanical act of retrieval.

Now, some folks are more auditory than visual.  So I would be remiss if I did not take a few seconds to describe the amazing creative power of the mind in auditory terms.  The example will be different, but the results will be very similar to the elephant driving the car down a mountain road.

Imagine President Bush giving a speech.  Hear his voice in your mind.  The Texas drawl, the conversational nonchalance of his expressions.  Now imagine he is talking about a problem.  Imagine him saying with a shrug, "The problem is the number of purple ostriches."   Could you hear him say it?

Now switch speakers.  Imagine President Obama giving a speech.  Focus in on his abrupt staccato rhythm.  No imagine him saying the same thing.  "The problem is the number of purple ostriches."

If you were successful, you have accomplished an amazing thing.  Neither of these men has probably ever uttered this phrase and even if they have, it is very unlikely that you ever heard them say it.  And yet the incredible human mind can map speech onto words and create a kind of audio record of people saying things they never have said.  The mind can combine existing elements and extrapolate the product they would produce.  It is as if the mind is taking the ingredients of flour and eggs and sugar and baking its own hypothetical cake.

So back to the list for a second...  The last item on the list is "unfinished project".  This should mean something different to everyone and yet everyone should have something they could put into this slot.  It may be associated with guilt (if it is our own unfinished project we are imagining) or anger (if it is a project we waiting for from someone else and are frustrated about it), but it is a nearly universal concept.  That is a fascinating part of context.  The idea of an unfinished project requires no explanation and yet everyone's personal "unfinished project" will be unique to them.  The feelings associated with the project (worry about money, anxiety about a deadline, melancholy about not having more time to pursue our joy, etc.) will be special to each individual's take on the concept.  Yet the concept has nearly universal meaning to modern adults.  This means that this phrase has a high degree of shared context (or it would not resonate with everyone) and yet the specifics of the context are very different (or else we would all think of the same thing).

So it is easy enough to say, "Red means stop" and know that we are talking about signals being interpreted in shared context.  But when we get to concepts like "unfinished projects", we need to appreciate that the simple signal-context model does not encompass the whole picture.

We will get into more about what kinds of symbolism or vocabulary can take us beyond "signals", but for now we should simply note the complexity of the ideas we can all associate with a common concept.  And context can be "shared" even while it is at the same time unique to each of us.

Next Week on CSI: Context

Well we're out of time this week.  We couldn't have really expected to explain all of context in one simple blurb.  But we have scratched a bit deeper into the surface of the woven fiber of information that makes up the context our mind brings to every new perception and idea.

We have much more to consider about how we connect memories and ideas and how these connections can change over time.  But for now, we'll put our evidence on ice and pick it up later.

No comments:

Post a Comment