Context collapse

Context collapse is a newly relevant term in design. It often refers to a breakdown that can occur in social media when a message intended for one particular audience leaks out to a larger, unintended audience. Michael Wesch, a pioneer of the term Context Collapse, defines it as "an infinite number of contexts collapsing upon one another into that single moment of recording. The images, actions, and words captured by the lens at any moment can be transported to anywhere on the planet and preserved (the performer must assume) for all time. The little glass lens becomes the gateway to a blackhole sucking all of time and space – virtually all possible contexts – in upon itself."

Most conversations about context collapse tend to talk about outward messaging by individuals on social media. Context collapse can be broadened, however, to describe any unintended communication - by any person or device. For instance, a phone ringing in a crowded concert hall is also a form of context collapse. The call, which was intended for just one person, instead reaches the entire audience - and performers. Clearly this is inappropriate in this context. The notification is not appreciated by anyone in the venue - likely not even by the person the phone belongs to (who likely just forgot to silence their phone before the concert). Here, the phone itself commits a cultural faux pas and accordingly, the owner of the phone inherits all the blame.

This exact situation happened in the New York Philharmonic in 2012. An alarm on a phone belonging to a man, referred to anonymously as "Patron X", went off in the middle of a concert (alarms on most smartphones will still go off even if the phone is turned off or on silent.) The ringing was so distracting that audience members shouted and the conductor paused the show until it stopped.

In this situation, no one wins. The show is ruined for everyone - including Patron X, who was humiliated on top of it all. The knee-jerk reaction is to blame him, but it can be argued that it was his phone that did the wrong thing.

With sufficient contextual knowledge, the phone could have known not to play the alarm. If only the phone knew it's owner had bought tickets for the show or seen the concert in scheduled in his calendar. If only it had referenced its GPS location to understand where it was, or listened through it's microphone to hear it's environment; If only it displayed a dialog when the man set his alarm, warning him that he was setting an alarm during a conflicting event - all of this could have been avoided.