Why context is important for the decision-making process

22 Jul 2019

Image: © LIGHTFIELD STUDIOS/Stock.adobe.com

We need to look beyond a 280-character tweet to see the full truth on a subject, writes Fathom’s Gareth Dunlop.

The interconnected, globalised village within which we all live is complex, messy and multifaceted. The majority of us spend most or all of our lives trying to understand it and our place in it, and are rightly suspicious of those who claim they already do.

The concept of a global village is more than a hackneyed cliché. It is the result of unimaginable technological and communication advances in the last decades, which are the inevitable conclusion of humankind’s single most distinguishing characteristic: our ability to collaborate in huge numbers. This ability singles us out from the animal kingdom – indeed our near relatives, chimpanzees, start to struggle when they need cooperation from more than six to eight buddies.

While nature has capacity for both serenity and violence, it has a predictable rhythm and order to it – it is often referred to as ‘the natural order’ after all. The human ability to cooperate at scale means that we have unique power to influence or disrupt that rhythm, as witnessed by the pace at which we accelerated to the top of the food chain, or our impact on global climate patterns.

The challenge of understanding and managing that power in a world becoming ‘smaller’ is further exacerbated by the inconvenience that none of us know enough to justify almost anything we believe.

 ‘Humans have the ability to dramatically influence a complex world despite our naturally finite brain capacity’

Prof Thomas Landauer from the Department of Psychology at the University of Colorado famously ran an experiment in the 1980s that involved asking test subjects to recall different forms of information over varying amounts of time. He discovered that recall turned out to be surprisingly consistent even across varying intelligence levels and, when converted to a value for the total amount of data a brain could store over a lifetime, produced a figure of around 200MB.

It is pretty sobering to recognise that in an environment where information can be ambiguous and the world is complicated, our brains give us no more than a third of a CD of capacity over our lifetime to navigate and understand the world. Yet somehow on a daily basis we need to extract black and white from the grey, making decisions using the ambiguity of data we have.

Bringing all of these threads together, we can conclude that humans have the ability to dramatically influence a complex world despite our naturally finite brain capacity. It seems to me self-explanatory, therefore, that we should be acutely aware of the shades of grey and actively pursue the knowledge we need to make good decisions.

Therefore, the last thing that the truth needs to express its fullness is a 280-character limit. Or, somewhat more alarmingly, 33 characters, if you consider the average length of a tweet as opposed to the maximum length of a tweet.

Recent high-profile Twitter battles illustrate the challenge.

When Conservative UK foreign office minister Mark Field manhandled a female climate protester at the Mansion House in London in June 2019, his entire life was summarised and judged in a 35-second video clip. Somewhat predictably, Twitter was split down the predictable party-political and gender lines in assessing what happened.

You may recall homeless Manchester man Chris Parker heroically running into the Manchester Arena in May 2017 during the bombing at the Ariana Grande concert, having witnessed the blast, seen white smoke and heard screaming. “It knocked me to the floor and then I got up and, instead of running away, my gut instinct was to run back and try and help,” he said. So delighted were the Twitterati that they organised a fundraiser for him, raising more than £50,000.

The only problem with all of this is that the reason he went back inside was to steal from the injured and vulnerable. CCTV showed him taking iPhones and debit cards. Subsequent evidence illustrated that he ignored dozens of calls on the phones from distraught relatives, and bought himself a McDonalds with a stolen debit card.

Also in May 2017, security researcher Marcus Hutchins was NHS hero-supreme when he halted the spread of NHS WannaCry ransomware by finding its kill switch. Immediately feted by all, he enthusiastically embraced the ‘I was only doing my job, guv’ trope. All was well until it transpired that his expertise in the area was the result of years of writing malware when he was a teenager, for which he was arrested in the US three months later.

 ‘We need to fight our ever-shortening attention spans to pursue context and make sense of the grey areas’

The Daily Mail is rightly ridiculed for its perpetual pursuit of categorising everything in the world as something that either causes or cures cancer (or both), but social media is playing the same zero-sum game with right and wrong. We have lost sight of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s perfectly expressed truth that the battle line between good and evil runs through the heart of every man. We all have capacity for right and wrong, good and evil, and frequently do both.

We therefore need to resist our impulse to rushed virtue signalling and public tribal alignment. We need to fight our ever-shortening attention spans to pursue context and make sense of the grey areas. It is neither our job nor responsibility to tweet moral judgement within minutes (or seconds) of skim-reading an article that supports our worldview.

Context is the tool that enables us to embrace the complexity and ambiguity of the world, and to live well within it. It cannot be found in a 30-second video or a 33-character tweet. We silence it at our peril.

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth Dunlop owns and runs Fathom, a UX consultancy that helps ambitious organisations get the most from their digital products by viewing the world from the perspective of their customers. Specialist areas include UX strategy, usability testing, customer journey planning and accessibility. Clients include BBC, Bord Bia, Firmus Energy, Kingspan, AIB and Tesco Mobile. 

Gareth Dunlop runs Fathom, a UX consultancy that helps organisations get the most from their digital products.