Context #1

I have always been interested in the notion of context - how things get meaning from their surroundings. (Is meaning absolute/transcendent or relative/subjective? You know, existential shit.)

The latest round started when a friend complained that there were no overview manuals at her new job, just a lot of detail documentation. She was having trouble figuring out how stuff fits in. She needed a big picture, some context.

That reminded me of something I had read and blogged about a few weeks earlier, about how cell phone users create their own private conversational context and lose contact with their immediate physical context - which can cause problems, say, when driving a car.

After that, examples of context (or the lack thereof) kept popping up.

More-or-less randomly…

Columnist David Brooks wrote an article about how some psychologists believe that behavior traits change from context to context - e.g., that we are different people for different situations. We don’t exist in one big context but a lot of little contexts, each of which defines us.

Brooks wrote another article comparing dating habits of people in the “Happy Days” era to the extreme daters in the cell phone/computer era. The former met in the larger context of schools/churches/workplaces whereas the later interact in the smaller contexts of self-defined social networks.

Back at Cardinal doing training films, we always preceded tight, detailed pictures with wider, establishing shots. This was to provide a visual context. Otherwise the close shots would make no sense.

Working as a tech writer at IBM in 1989, there were no overview guides for the documentation I was updating. Just a huge collection of detailed reference guides. The user was expected to provide his/her own context to the material.

I have read (and probably written) many wordy introductions over the years when all I or anyone wanted was simply to find directions for getting the job done. There are times when the big picture is too big - too abstract.

The Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) standard for documentation seems task oriented rather than concept oriented. This latest scheme for organizing technical information is about doing the job rather than explaining the larger context of the job. Although DITA includes a concept category, the descriptions I’ve seen don’t seem especially interested in providing larger context.

And on and on.

I am not sure what any of this means - if anything. But in my own search for context, I wonder of I have discovered something about context itself? I wonder if technology and human inclination are moving us into more narrowly defined contexts - maybe more subjective?

I don’t know. More on this later. (I am plagued by other possibilities. What about modern science? Does the subjectivity of quantum uncertainty and relativity represent a narrowing of context? What about modern philosophy? There hasn’t been any grand shit philosophy since Kant. Aside from the post-Kantian sputters of the 19th century it's been narrow and technical and just weird - context writ small. Are we getting smaller while the universe gets bigger?)

1 comment:

Julia said...

"The Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) standard for documentation seems task oriented rather than concept oriented."

That might be because the adoption of structured authoring follows minimalism on the continuum. Minimalism is an instructional paradigm that emphasizes doing over reading.