Outside Context

In 1991, Scientific American published an article by Mark Weiser titled The Computer for the 21st Century. In it, Weiser presents an idyllic vision of a world where “computers are so ubiquitous that no one will notice their presence”. It presents a story of Sal, a Silicon Valley single mother whose life is catered for by technology in a way that Rogers (2006) quite rightly likens to the Victorian gentry. We are presented with a world in which everyone can live the dream of the neoliberal nouveau riche – provided that your definition of “everyone” extends only to corporate executives in a region afflicted with stark income inequality.

Fast-forward to December 2016 when, in the wake of the US presidential election and EU referendum, a journalist named Carole Cadwalladr came across a company by the name of Cambridge Analytica. They had used suspect data processing methods in an attempt to influence these democratic processes, and were only discovered after the damage was done. How did we get here?

Bluntly, we got here because to a certain extent Weiser’s vision came true. We hadn’t noticed how much we relied on computers to receive information and construct our social lives, nor had we noticed how easily those systems could be influenced. Technology has become so much a part of our lives, and so interconnected, that even if we try to see the proverbial wood for the trees, perceiving the ecosystem of the whole forest is beyond us.

Science fiction author Iain M Banks’s novel Excession explores the idea of an “Outside Context Problem” – a problem whose emergence is unanticipated, and whose damage is hard to mitigate, simply because it has not occurred to society at large that it was possible for the issue to arise in the first place. Banks’ classical example is of a society encountering a vastly more technologically advanced civilisation with ambitions of colonisation, and his novels are fantastical, but perhaps an Outside Context Problem in the modern day need not be so dramatic.

The interlinked web of technologies that allow our society to function are becoming so complex that it is no longer reasonable to expect any one person to possess a working understanding of every problem that could emerge from it. None of us can say with certainty where the next problem on the scale of Cambridge Analytica will arise from, or how much damage it might do, or whether the technology they are designing will inadvertently allow it to happen.

The question, then, is what we can do about all this. I have talked before about how problems we cannot solve are still important to consider. As researchers and designers, it is more important than ever before to pay attention to stakeholders and collaborators. We must abandon the notion that we know best. If we assume our context is the only context, we make ourselves all the more vulnerable to problems that emerge from outside it.



Weiser, M., The Computer for the 21st Century. Scientific American (1991) 94-104

Rogers, Y., 2006, Moving on from Weiser’s Vision of Calm Computing: Engaging UbiComp Experiences. Ubicomp 2006, LNCS 4206, pp. 404-421

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Author: Adam Parnaby

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