Monday, July 25, 2011

Out of Context Problem

This is a really interesting concept that I encountered over the weekend.  An "Out of Context Problem" is one that we encounter without any possible preparation of forewarning.  For example, the Aztec Empire was at the height of its power, literally the strongest nation in their world, when the Spanish arrived.  The Spanish had technology so far beyond the Aztecs that they could never have predicted or prepared to combat it.  We've seen many versions of this particular brand of "Out of Context Problem" throughout history; the Romans versus the Teutons, American Colonists versus Native Americans, even the atomic bomb dropped on Japan.

In the late 90's there were a bunch of popular "apocalypse" movies that played off of the Out of Context Problem.  Armageddon, for example, was a very popular story in which scientists discovered an asteroid that would destroy the Earth within some very brief time period (I think a couple of weeks).  There was no plan in place for this possibility because it was not even considered a realistic possibility.  A lot of sci-fi uses this idea; most alien invasion stories use it in some way or another.  In Star Trek: The Next Generation the arrival of the Borg is a problem like this.  In the real world, I think the September 11th attacks are a pretty decent example.

What I've been thinking about is how we can prepare for the arrival of an Out of Context Problem.  Given the unpredictable nature of the problem (something so far out of our paradigm that we simply can't see it) it would be wasteful to attempt projections of possible problems, since we already do this as a society and the types of things we predict, no matter how far-fetched, are unlikely to be the problem we will face.  Worst-case scenario preparation seems more viable, like the CDC releasing a zombie apocalypse preparation guide to teach people to plan for a variety of serious disaster situations.  The problem is that there is only so much planning that we can do, and worst-case scenario preparation usually focuses on basic, day-to-day, and, most of all, temporary survival needs.

It seems to me that the one thing we can do to prepare for an Out of Context Problem is to become better problem solvers in general.  This might seem a little obvious, but hear me out.  Whatever the problem that comes up, it is going to be outside the realm of anyone's expertise, so we become more analytic and generalized learners and problem solvers.  I'm not just talking about challenging problems though: asking a mathematician to solve highly complex calculus problems isn't an Out of Context Problem.  Asking an English Teach to solve the same problem is closer to being out of context.

Being able to analyze information across diverse fields and use it to solve problems is a highly valuable skill that our very specialized education system seems to ignore.  The people we will need to solve the problems we aren't even qualified to dream up yet are those who will not balk at the challenge of new concepts and ideas beyond the scope of their own experience and education.

15 comments:

Ali said...

well said...and I like your solution: as a global society, we should become better at problem solving--and not only to combat a possible out-of-context problem, but also in-context problems such as the Famine in East Africa, which was predicted well in advance and has geopolitical influences that we could (easily?) have done something about it.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a religious nut but the Bible speaks of (An out of context problem) that mankind in general does not just not for-see but refuses to even accept the possibility of it happening. And that is that Jehovah will shortly bring a great tribulation that mankind has never seen before. Matthew 24:21 / Mark 13:19 / 1 Thessalonians 5:1,3.

First the bible shows that god will move the political rulers to turn against all religion & uterly destroy it.Rev 17:17 / Rev 17:5 also v 16 / Rev 18:8.

Also the end of this comercialistic world & a total global melt down of the monetary system. Money & what was once classed valuble will be of no help Ezekiel 7:19

And then the event that that will shock the world (Armageddon).

Jehovah will say enough is enough & take action against this corrupt & depraved world. Daniel 2:44 / Psalms 37:10,11 / 2 Peter 2:5-7 / Rev 11:18.

Why such a shock? because so many now believe in Evolution as fact, when in fact it's called even now (the theory of evolution) yes as the bible says Psalms 53:1 & Psalms 14:1 The senseless one has said in his heart: “There is no Jehovah.” They have acted ruinously, they have acted detestably in [their] dealing. There is no one doing good.

It will not supprize me that people reading this will think it to be the rantings of a religious nut but the bible fortold that too.

Psalms 92:6 No unreasoning man himself can know [them], And no one stupid can understand this.

Matthew 24:37-39 For just as the days of Noah were, so the presence of the Son of man will be. For as they were in those days before the flood, eating and drinking, men marrying and women being given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark; and they took no note until the flood came and swept them all away, so the presence of the Son of man will be.
see also Luke 17:26-30

But the bible promises not all will be destroyed Rev 7:9,10 in fact it offers a brighter future than anyone could imagine.

Look Rev 21:3-5 With that I heard a loud voice from the throne say: “Look! The tent of God is with mankind, and he will reside with them, and they will be his peoples. And God himself will be with them. And he will wipe out every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore. The former things have passed away.” And the One seated on the throne said: “Look! I am making all things new.” Also, he says: “Write, because these words are faithful and true.”

Yes indeed an (out of context problem) but with a happy solution for those that want it.

John 17:3 This means everlasting life, their taking in knowledge of you, the only true God, and of the one whom you sent forth, Jesus Christ

John 10:28 And I give them everlasting life, and they will by no means ever be destroyed, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.

B said...

I hesitate to conceptualize the biblical apocalypse as a kind of out-of-context problem. An Out-of-Context problem is one that is so disconnected from our experience that we have no way of knowing how to solve it. Apocalypse is an unsolvable problem, so I'm not sure it's meaningful from the point of view I'm suggesting.

The apocalypse "foretold" in the Revelation of John of Patmos (incidentally not John the Baptist as some people inexplicably believe) is an unpreventable prophecied act of God, over which we simply have no possibility of control. If it comes it will come as it was always fated to come, with or without the intercession of man. Nothing we can do will prevent this.

The cruelest part of our current crisis is that we can't pass it off on God. The problems we have created are truly of our own making, and to suggest that they are the provenance of the Lord is, to me at least, a little inappropriate. It's up to us to fix this, to restore our societies and economies to a stronger state and try to continue to improve ourselves.

What I am concerned about is our seeming willingness to cast aside the freedoms of thought and reason we have fought so long to achieve for partisanship and dogma. We put aside artistic and intellectual pursuits for a world of simple answers and prepackaged entertainment. We stop striving to be better and become content to just be.

In a sense, being human is about becoming, not about being. But I think much of our society is satisfied with just being.

Anonymous said...

The Biblical Apocalypse is not an example of an out of context problem. Its the furthest thing from it. If it comes, it will be by the will of the Almighty, and it will be as it is meant to be. Completely out of our control, and completely expected. In fact nothing that has been predicted can be an out of context problem. By definition it has to be unexpected.
The thing to remember is that all problems are on some level in context. Sure, its not easy to prepare for aliens attacking. But on some level warfare is warfare regardless of the superior weapons used. See how well the Viet Cong used the home terrain advantage to drive out vastly superior forces from their land. The Aztects could have done something of the sort as well. They just didn't. All problems have solutions, even if they don't all have good solutions. I think determination and toughness might be better markers of those who survive then artistic integrity or reaching for the stars. Do you honestly think that the reason that the Viet Cong response was so much more successful then the Aztec response because they were watching better theater? No. The better response came because they were tougher.

Anonymous said...

erm... if you can prepare for an out of context problem, doesn't it cease to become an out of context problem by definition?

Swaan said...

To answer the complete ignorance of the anonymous person leaving a comment before me involving the Viet Cong and the Aztec I've decided to write something of my own.

First of all the gap between the Aztec and Spanish compared to the gap between Viet Cong and America is a lot wider in technology then you might think. Aztec was a powerful kingdom no doubt but their technology leaves much to be desired with weapons worse than those of the Egyptians at their height. Second thing to note is the fact of globalization. While the Aztec never knew of any other continent et cetra and probably taught of Spanish soldiers as divine and unworldly Viet Cong had access to spies and 20th century technology. Their understanding of the enemy was much greater and so was their knowledge. They also adapted a "guerrilla" style warfare that favours smaller armies. They fought a war not to win in a military context but rather to drive off American troops and for that they needed only to break the people supporting the war at home.
Aztec on the other hand was a rich kingdom and would face constant incursions from Europe to the very end until someone claimed the riches. The bait was just too strong.
A large part of the defeat of the natives was also disease.

Viet Cong and America is not an out of context problem. Aztec vs Spain is with Aztec having no chance of winning.

An alien race attacking earth is an out of context problem aswell.
With technology to create space ships they would surely have technology to create a man-killing virus. Those left would get caught by unmanned surveilance and combat robots thermal cameras, devastating weapons and EMPs.

Imagine earth getting hit by a virus with more than 95% lethality and EMP bombs killing all electronics.
We will soon (if not already) be able to do this ourselves.

Earth would be left with 5% of population at most with no technology and no hierarchy.
Bands of outlaws would emerge and perhaps a few communities. After all of this the ability to fight against occupation is limited to acceptable losses and even less than that.

It's as if USA dropped a nuclear bomb on Viet Cong, poisoned water supply in all cities and bombarded smaller ones all at once while sending in unmanned combat mechs to clean up. And even that doesn't even get close to it. The remaining Viet Cong could still fight back while against an alien ship up in space human kind with no electricity and gadgets that come with it could not.

Swaan said...

To answer the complete ignorance of the anonymous person leaving a comment before me involving the Viet Cong and the Aztec I've decided to write something of my own.

First of all the gap between the Aztec and Spanish compared to the gap between Viet Cong and America is a lot wider in technology then you might think. Aztec was a powerful kingdom no doubt but their technology leaves much to be desired with weapons worse than those of the Egyptians at their height. Second thing to note is the fact of globalization. While the Aztec never knew of any other continent et cetra and probably taught of Spanish soldiers as divine and unworldly Viet Cong had access to spies and 20th century technology. Their understanding of the enemy was much greater and so was their knowledge. They also adapted a "guerrilla" style warfare that favours smaller armies. They fought a war not to win in a military context but rather to drive off American troops and for that they needed only to break the people supporting the war at home.
Aztec on the other hand was a rich kingdom and would face constant incursions from Europe to the very end until someone claimed the riches. The bait was just too strong.
A large part of the defeat of the natives was also disease.

Viet Cong and America is not an out of context problem. Aztec vs Spain is with Aztec having no chance of winning.

An alien race attacking earth is an out of context problem aswell.
With technology to create space ships they would surely have technology to create a man-killing virus. Those left would get caught by unmanned surveilance and combat robots thermal cameras, devastating weapons and EMPs.

Imagine earth getting hit by a virus with more than 95% lethality and EMP bombs killing all electronics.
We will soon (if not already) be able to do this ourselves.

Earth would be left with 5% of population at most with no technology and no hierarchy.
Bands of outlaws would emerge and perhaps a few communities. After all of this the ability to fight against occupation is limited to acceptable losses and even less than that.

It's as if USA dropped a nuclear bomb on Viet Cong, poisoned water supply in all cities and bombarded smaller ones all at once while sending in unmanned combat mechs to clean up. And even that doesn't even get close to it. The remaining Viet Cong could still fight back while against an alien ship up in space human kind with no electricity and gadgets that come with it could not.

Anonymous said...

I think I should point out, why humans have done so well for themselves over the last 200 years, Its down to the very thing you talk about in regard to the idea of OCP's. We are in form and habit social complex problem solvers, we are very very good at it. An Ice age comes and we think, "WTF, its cold, need to keep warm, ok that thing has nice pelt keeps it warm, well have that, and this fire think, that as well, O and the cold keeps meat from going bad out side this cave thing, have that." soon humans are not only past the OCP they are doing really well. The rest of life on earth has to Physically adapt or die, which takes generations. Not us humans, with the advent of complex language, it becomes a matter of how fast you can teach your fellow humans the tricks you have picked up to deal with an OCP. So I would say when dealing with an OCP information and communication are key. The sooner you find out what the OCP is the better and the more Intel you can pass on to other humans the better. Has I M Banks himself said about hes other great idea "The Culture" - "The Culture always likes to be in the know"

Anonymous said...

Someone watched the episode "Cause and Effect" in season 1 of Alphas...considering you used the exact same example they did in the show and posted this one week to the day after the episode originally aired

B said...

I didn't claim it was my original idea, just that it was an interesting concept. I've been thinking about the idea for several years now and it's still a great idea, regardless of where it came from.

humairovichino said...

So cool! Finally found a blog that also writes about such topics. I enjoyed this post, will check out for more of your stuff.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. I just watched the Alphas on Neflix. I Googled "out of context problem" and here I am again.

Seems circular: Netflix, - Alphas, - Google, - Netflix.

"out of context problem" seems to be based upon superior technology or seen or unforeseen cataclysmic events. Biblical events are not unforeseen. Superior technology alone is not the driver. The use of the technology is the driver. What was the common variable between the Aztecs and the Spaniards. . . Man? Perhaps Man is both the problem and the solution to "out of context problem". . . hmm

Michael Baldwin said...

"Alphas" is exactly why i too searched out this topic. HA! Here's my problem .. fell in love with the show .. then it disappears with no talk of season 3 or even a finale........

HELP!?!?!!!! KUMAR! what you DOING MAN! we need more ALPHAS!!!!

Anonymous said...

When you write out-of-context, then what context are you writing about? Any social organization operates on a mental construction of sense, an assumed raison d'être (see Karl Weick's 'Social psychology of organizing' for details).
So if you encounter your out-of-context problem, you are also encountering a loss of sense: Whatever you though was the purpose of your live will be put into question. You yourself will put yourself into question. It breaks down the social fabric and requires you to rebuild it from scratch. I doubt that you can outlearn that change for learning presupposes sense. Good try, but not good enough.

Robert McKinlay said...

The Outside Context Problem as originally coined by Iain M Banks is a very interesting concept. It was certainly one the Aztecs didn't think of.

Perhaps part of the preparation for a potential OCP (if that in itself is not ridiculous) is the appreciation of the possibility we may not be alone.

Stephen Hawking in 2010 did say that first contact didn't turn out too well for American Indians.

Will Smith said 'welcome to Earth' after he punched an alien out in Independence Day and the aliens in Mars Attacks were lousy boxers too.

I say punch them.