Context is King

There is a crisis of context in modern information consumption. While data is abundant, understanding its significance requires context. And context is scarce. This leads to misunderstandings and potnetial manipulation of content across a number of fields, including legal education and public communication.

This article was first published in The Mint. You can read the original at this link.

Tyler Cowen, well-known economist and prolific writer, recently published a post called “Context is that which is scarce”. In it, he argued that our problem today is not with the information we consume but the fact that we lack the context to properly understand its significance. While the post does not, despite its intriguing title, offer much by way of context, the aphorism resonated strongly with me, articulating as it did what I view as a fundamental problem that ails public communications today.

Learning On The Job

In my firm, we recruit from the top law schools in the country. The people we hire are, arguably, among the most qualified law graduates in the country—most of whom have spent 5 years in intensive education programmes conducted by some of the best regarded institutions of legal education in India. They are all, without exception, well read and, by the time they join us, often already have a string of publications to their credit. And yet, despite the high quality of their education, it will take at least 2 years for me to feel confident enough in their capabilities to place them in front of clients unsupervised.

Why, I have wondered, is this the case?

As good as our system of legal education is, it is primarily designed to impart information. Most of India’s top law schools excel at this: turning out graduates with comprehensive knowledge of both the law as well as the cases that have interpreted it. What they fail to do is give their students any of the context they need to put all that knowledge to practical use in the real world.

The profession has traditionally addressed this lacuna by encouraging an informal system of apprenticeship. In an earlier article I had referred to this as the “artisanal” side of the legal profession:

Modern law firms may be large multinational organisations but when you strip away the veneer, even the most advanced law firm in the world is built around an inherently artisanal framework. At the heart of this structure is the concept that your legal education is not done until you have successfully completed an apprenticeship.

Junior lawyers try and associate themselves with senior professionals so that they can acquire this much-needed context through observation and unconscious assimilation. This is a long and uncertain process and depends as much on individual aptitude as fortuitous circumstance. It is not, as a result, a model that scales particularly well, leaving large law firms with no option but to either find alternative solutions or wait till their workforce acquires these skills on the job.

Leaders and Experts

Across organisations, the ability to contextualise information across different domains is often the single biggest factor that distinguishes the stars from mediocre performers. Most leaders come from this stock—their skill at connecting the dots is, almost wholly, due to the way they can synthesise information from different contexts. While knowledge alone will never be enough to climb the corporate ladder, context is guaranteed to take you places.

We often need to rely on experts for context. Cowen explains this is by using the example of contemporary art. Most works of modern art, he says, are incomprehensible unless explained by someone who understands them well. Anyone who has rejected these works out of hand probably hasn’t taken the trouble to understand the context in which they were created.

This need for expert context is just as true in the case of current affairs—from the geopolitics of the situation in Ukraine to finding our way out of the pandemic. While we all have access to the data that may hold the answers to these questions, unless that data is placed in context by subject-matter experts, the conclusions we draw are, at best, incomplete.

A Crisis of Context

We are, today, in the midst of an unprecedented crisis of context. Modern technology has brought more data within our grasp than ever before. However, in doing so, it has failed to provide us with the sort of tools we need to place all that data properly in context.

The services we use to consume information—social media and microblogging platforms that for many of us are now primary sources of news—have been designed to atomise information so that it can be more carefully targeted at intended recipients. In the process, these platforms strip out context in ways that leave the resultant information either hopelessly uni-dimensional or highly amenable to being interpreted in multiple different ways.

None of this would have been a problem had we still been able to rely on institutional frameworks for context. Journalists have traditionally shouldered the responsibility of sifting through information and either providing us a neutral point of view or their own carefully-calibrated context of why that information matters. This sort of professional contextualisation is, with each passing day, being steadily eroded—replaced by a multitude of opinionated voices that have neither the credentials, experience nor training to justify the context they provide. Technology platforms have further enabled this cacophony of divergent views by democratising context. Today, everyone has a soapbox that one can preach from, confident that the amplification of social media will allow the laying of claims to expertise that they do not really have.

It is both urgent and important for us to address this issue expeditiously. Without an effective context layer, the data on our information highways will steadily and surely lose relevance. Uncontextualised data that is inherently capable of being manipulated to serve the ends of those who use it is dangerous. More so if we don’t have the ability to distinguish experts from charlatans.

Never has this been as important as it is today, considering how much more likely it has become that at least one part of the world’s social media infrastructure will soon assume a radically absolutist approach to free speech.