Content, context, connections – and purpose
A few days back, one of my fellow Twitterers (I forget who – my apologies) pointed me to a brief video, ‘Context is King‘, by futurist David Houle. His theme in the video and elsewhere is that we are in an “evolution shift” from ‘the Information Age’ to what he calls ‘the Shift Age’. In the video he suggests that:
In the Information Age, the phrase was “Content is King”. While that may still be true, in the Shift Age, “Context is King”
Yet whilst that also “may still be true”, it doesn’t go anything like far enough. At the very least, we need to add ‘connections’ to that list, and probably ‘purpose’ as well – and, perhaps most important, the integration that links all of those dimensions together.
(Oh dear, yet another one that’s getting a bit long, and probably a bit too abstract too. Mainly enterprise-architecture and the like, so click on the ‘Read more…’ link if that’s of interest to you.)
Compare this to the well-worn sequence ‘Data, Information, Knowledge, Wisdom’. These are usually described in terms of a stack:
- Data is content : the equivalent of a physical asset
- Information is Data + context : the ‘context’ for data usually being described as metadata, or ‘information about information’
- Knowledge is Information + connections : the ‘connections’ for information usually being described in terms of a set of defined relations between data- and/or metadata-items, in a schema or taxonomy
- Wisdom is Knowledge + purpose : the ‘purpose’ for knowledge usually being described in terms of values or principles that underpin some kind of formal or informal ontology
In some ways, though, it’s more useful to describe these as locations or regions within a four-dimensional space laid as a tetradian, the internal axes of a tetrahedron:
It’s actually a better fit, though, if we return to the more generic ‘content, context’ and so on:
The point here is that we can choose to focus on any one of these at any given time – hence we might shift our attention from content to context, for example, as David Houle suggests. But all of them are equally valid – none of the dimensions is inherently more important than any of the others.
And in practice none of them makes sense in isolation from the others. For example, as again David Houle implies, great emphasis was placed on content during the ‘Information Age’. To be more precise, the emphasis was placed on virtual-content, or data – often there was nothing like enough ‘information-about-information’ to give the content any meaning, which is why in recent times there’sbeen a strong re-emphasis on metadata to give the data its context. Yet that too is incomplete: information only becomes knowledge when we can connect to other items of information; and so on.
Hence data-management, information-management, knowledge-management – all of them recognised disciplines in present-day business. But what about ‘wisdom management’? The answer is that that exists too, though rarely with that title: we see it in the vast storehouse of stories, proverbs, advisory anecdotes and cautionary tales that embody the painfully-accumulated wisdom of the organisation. And taken on their own, in isolation, even ‘wisdoms’ may make little sense: without a context to anchor it, content to embody it, and connections to link it into the real world, even the greatest wisdom becomes little more than a empty proverb, a pointless ‘moral of the story’ without a story to bring it to life.
Yet one of the most important parts of this is that we need something to link each of these dimensions into a unified whole: a systematic process of integration, passing attention from one dimension to the next, and ensuring that each dimension has sufficient ‘time in the spotlight’ that it never fully fades from our awareness. That way we would avoid misleading labels like ‘The Information Age’ or ‘The Connection Age’, that over-emphasise a single dimension, and instead have what we might call ‘The Integration Age’. (I’d avoid calling it ‘The Integral Age’, to avoid associations with the mad millennial aspirations of Ken Wilber and the like…) Everything links together with everything else, in every dimension.
That perhaps sounds a bit abstract, but another way to look at it is with yet another set of labels, that bring it back down to more concrete realms:
This is one of the underlying frames that I use to categorise implementation-‘segments’ in my extended-Zachman taxonomy/framework for whole-of-enterprise architecture. (This dimension-set – physical, relational, virtual, and aspirational – is also the same as the ‘Four Elements’ of classical Western philosophy – Earth, Water, Air, and Fire – which these days are better understood as the four distinct states of matter – solid, liquid, gas and plasma.)
The physical dimension is about tangible ‘things’, physical assets, physical locations, and functions that act upon those things. Our economic models are all actually based on the ‘alienable’ nature of physical things: if I give it to you, I no longer have it, hence I would need to be ‘compensated’ for its loss.
The virtual or ‘conceptual’ dimension we see most often as data and the like – an organisation’s ‘virtual assets’ – but also virtual locations such as IP addresses and phone-numbers, and functions that act on those. (An ‘Information Age’ would place a probably excessive emphasis on this dimension – which is exactly what we’ve seen in the past few decades.) The crucial distinction between physical and virtual assets is that the latter are ‘non-alienable’: if I give it to you, I still have it – hence the literal meaning of the phrase ‘information wants to be free’, which is actually nothing about price at all. Most ‘intellectual-property’ economics somehow assumes that virtual-assets can be withheld in the same way as physical assets: since this can’t work, by the nature of information, we’re forced into a chaotic mess of ‘digital rights management’ and the like, to try to force virtual-assets into a physical-asset-like frame. Which, unsurprisingly, doesn’t work very well… though what to do about that is a subject for a separate post!
The relational dimension is in part about people – hence its classical description as the ’emotional’ dimension – but is actually more about connections and relationships in general, between people, between things, between ideas, from anything to anything else. Crucially, a connection exists between two other entities: if either side drops the connection, it ceases to exist. Current economics again tries to treat connections as if they’re physical objects – most notoriously in the often well-meant but lethally destructive phrase “our people are our greatest asset” – which again is a common cause of architectural failure.
The aspirational dimension is always about purpose, expressed in real-world forms as morale, vision, values, brands and the like. In effect, this is a kind of one-way connection from a source to a target that may be either real or abstract. (To avoid some seriously murky waters of teleology and the like, it’s wisest to assume in enterprise-architecture that the ‘source’ in this context is always a real person – usually as individuals, though sometimes as a collective, such as in the phrase “the vision of the organisation is…”.) The source has an active commitment towards the target, but the commitment does not need to be reciprocal (as it it is in the relational dimension), and in some cases may not actually exist – for example, a ‘vision’ is about an imagined future rather than a present reality. Current economics even attempts to treat this as if it is physical, such as in monetary valuations of brands; trying to do so is seriously insane, in a very literal sense, but there ’tis…
The dimensions are also recursive, looping back on themselves and each other. For example, data are the ‘things’ or content of the virtual dimension; metadata or information-about-information provide the data with its virtual context; relational connections link the data into useful knowledge, either in a personal sense, or within some kind of schema; whilst the purpose to which we apply all of this is what gives it its meaning.
That’s still somewhat abstract; but in the real world, most things are explicit composites of two or more of these dimension, and implicitly are probably composites of all of them. For example, a network node has both a physical and a virtual location, and is represented by something that is physical (a server, or router or whatever) and that also has – or should have – a purpose within at least one schema of the network and its business role. A business role represents a place in a relational schema -such as the dreaded ‘org-chart’ – a real person, a physical and/or virtual location and some kind of business purpose. The dimensions interweave, are made real in many different ways, but it’s a still a useful way to categorise what’s going on in an architectural context.
Content, context, connections, purpose; often as expressed as physical, virtual, relational and aspirational dimensions. We can choose to focus our attention on any one of these at any time – an emphasis which may lead us in turn to useful abstractions such as ‘The Information Age’ or ‘The Connection Age’. Hence, again in turn, may give us the feeling that that ‘content is king’, or context’ – yet which in reality is only an artefact of our choice to focus on that specific dimension or domain.
So as architects, we must remember that all these dimensions of reality are always present in everything, everywhere, everywhen. Nothing exists in isolation from anything else, hence we always need to hold a view of the whole system in mind whenever we work on any one of its supposed parts. We forget that fact at our peril!