Why Context Is Everything
Updated: Jun 6
A Closer Look at What Makes A World-Changing Narrative
What is the most interesting story one can tell while using the fewest story devices possible? Here’s a hint, the number of devices is one, and it is most often depicted symbolically, but can also double as a literal device when necessary. The answer is both commonplace and profound, and it is an intriguing exercise in storytelling. The real magic behind this riddle involves humankind’s greatest complex, multifaceted, but little-understood element: context.
What makes context so powerful is that its impact on the audience is not dependent on their understanding of it. The audience may not even be aware of the context, which in some cases, makes it more impactful. Two of the best examples came around the same time from the United Kingdom and the United States. Two separate events occurred about a year apart from each other: the Brexit referendum and a struggling real-estate-mogul-turned-reality-TV-star campaigning to be President of the United States. Both events are once-in-a-generation moments that will go on to make decades-long historical impacts. However, there was a deeply troubling wrinkle in how these events unfolded. A very small population figured out how to persuade a large population of voters through unethical manipulation, dishonesty, and outright lies.
At the center of it all: context.
The small population in question was Cambridge Analytica and those associated with its practices. They gathered the context of their target audience at a level never before achieved (ie huge amounts of online user data). They then crafted and disseminated stories and narratives possessing context that the audience 1. were not aware of and 2. did not understand. It was an overwhelming barrage of hyper-targeted, politically-motivated, and misleading ads.
If that doesn’t prove the power of context, not to worry, we are experiencing a significant, history-changing example in real-time: GPT AI. This example has not only captured the public's attention, but it also sheds light on the answer to the riddle posed in the opening paragraph.
GPT stands for "Generative Pre-trained Transformer". It is a type of machine-learning model capable of generating human-like text. It has been developed and popularized by OpenAI, and currently, the buzz surrounding their AI tool is the “disturbing” or “unsettling” results some users have been receiving when using it. Responses from the tools have resembled irrational emotion, as if the chatbot was offended or embarrassed, demanding an apology, refusing to answer questions, demonstrating emotionally obsessive behavior, and even lying to cover up mistakes.
Reports of these oddities and the public reaction reveal one crucial similarity to the events of 2015 and 2016: a failure to understand the context. Let’s clear that up right now: the AI tools are not actually expressing genuine emotion. They are not experiencing “internal conflict” within their neural processors. Instead, they are simply processing the provided data, which is human-generated texts propagated all throughout the internet. These tools simply return the information to the user with unprecedented linguistic structure. OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Microsoft Bing’s Sydney are little more than impressive mirrors. Which happens to be the answer to the riddle.
No narrative device has the ability to mesmerize in so many complex and multifaceted ways than the humble mirror. So much so that it can change the course of history, for better or worse. And if we continue to misunderstand the context, it will be for the worse.
As the poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote, “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” Too much public examination points the spotlight on “truth”, “facts”, “fake news”, and the like. However, the bigger elephant in the room is the need for a greater understanding of the context. There is a classic scientific experiment called the “mirror test”: put a mirror out in the wild and observe the behavior of animals who see their reflection. This is the literal form of a mirror previously mentioned in the opening paragraph. The symbolic version is the misguided stories we, as a society, are telling ourselves when we see our collective behavior reflected back at us. We are the animal who fails to recognize the mirror, who fails to understand the context.
The absence of story is the absence of being human. While the pursuit of truth, facts, knowledge, and science is noble, it is pointless without context, and our lack of understanding context is evidence of our lack of understanding everything.