The Future is Context Dependent Content

Historically we have read content linearly, start to finish. Newer models of content will allow for consumers to shift to non-linear models, getting content dependent information on an as needed basis.

Photo by Jaredd Craig on Unsplash

Despite multiple degrees from MIT and over a dozen patents to my name, I can be a bit of luddite when it comes to reading. I still prefer printed books over eBooks. I’ll read articles online, but not books. Books, however, have a serious limitation.

When it comes to educational books–which includes textbooks, as well as business, self-help, and reference books–they all have a built-in limitation. Where you read ideas isn’t where you need ideas. You typically read them on your couch, but you apply them in the office, or at an event. The consumption of knowledge and the application of the knowledge are separated both physically and temporarily. The same is true for podcasts you listen to, talks you hear, and classes you take.

Where you read ideas isn’t where you need ideas.

In theory an e-book overcomes this. With the e-book reader in your pocket (or app for the podcasts) you can pull up the information anywhere or anytime. That’s the theory. In reality, do you?

There are specific cases where we do. The Physician’s Desk Reference, for example, is used in both the print and digital form by doctors to look up drug information on the spot. Of course, no one actually reads the Physician’s Desk Reference, or most any reference book, front to back in the first place. It’s designed for quick lookup of limited information. The internet makes all that faster and easier. Academic textbooks are the other common case. We may read those cover to cover in school, and then look up something from time to time. But most things in academic textbooks are also freely available online these days.

Business and self-help books are inherently different. For example, my book has networking tips. In theory you’d pull those up right before you walk into a networking event. But even if you have the electronic copy of my book–or any other networking book–are you going to go through the hassle of pulling up the book on your phone and skimming through the relevant pages a few minutes before the event? If you heard a podcast episode on networking, do you have thirty to sixty minutes to play it again to refresh yourself before walking into an event? Unlike books, most podcasts are well indexed so you can’t really jump to the key spots as easily. And even books aren’t indexed well to a specific point.

With the e-book reader in your pocket . . . you can pull up the information anywhere or anytime. That’s the theory. In reality, do you?

Most media is designed to be consumed linearly. It’s not just physical media, but most electric media as well, that is limited to linear play orders. First page to last page; start to finish.

People have talked about heads up displays with digital glasses. When you see someone, it can pull up their name, your last few messages with this person, the names of their spouse and kids, recent social media posts, and other information that may be needed for the pending conversation. Why not do that with other types of information. We may not have a heads-up display, but we can still make it more accessible than flipping through pages or searching a book, or even notes, on your phone.

Suppose you’re walking into a sales meeting. Wouldn’t it be nice to get some sales tips a few minutes before (or maybe the day before)? Have a brainstorming meeting coming up? Some advice on creativity might be very helpful. Walking into a family holiday dinner party that’s likely to end in a shouting match? Imagining getting some advice on how to survive the holidays, or deal with difficult relatives shortly before entering the house.

Most media is designed to be consumed linearly. . . . First page to last page; start to finish.

In theory you can do all this today. You know your calendar and you can, prior to the event, search the internet for relevant advice. As with the eBooks earlier, in reality we just don’t do it. But just as the heads-up display will give up contextual information about the people with whom we’re about to interact so, too, can tools of the future provide contextually relevant information for our immediate circumstances.

To make this a reality, content creators (or software) will need to take their ideas and mark them up so they can be applied. A book, podcast, class, or talk will have a lot of good, actionable ideas. Today’s software can determine the general nature of the content, that is, the category or topic. It can’t, however, efficiently pull out the key points and tag them. Once those points are extracted and marked, however it is done, they can be added to tools which can determine context and can provide contextually relevant ideas.

That future is closer than we think. Tools like Brain Bump already start to do this but we can look forward to many other tools in the future.

There will be better notes apps that will let you organize and quickly access content. Equally important is the ability for the software to automatically provide the contextually relevant information. The heads-up display is glasses won’t wait for you to type in a name but will recognize the person and pull up the appropriate information. Information tools of tomorrow will discover your content based on your calendar, location, proximity to others, current activity and more and will bring up contextually helpful information.

Content creators (e.g., authors, podcasters, speakers, and thought leaders) will need to rethink content. We know people don’t always read books from start to finish. In the future they are more likely to read books like the encyclopedia, jumping to a specific topic and getting concentrated information on it. I’m not suggesting books will go away in their current form, but rather how people will engage with that content will evolve and content creators need to be ready for it.