By analyzing environments, structures, and the elements that make up environments, Hinton creates a working definition of context. Starting with environments, he moves on to information and how it can be best understood in the definition of context.

A Wall and a FieldEdit

In this section, Hinton uses an idyllic landscape to introduce the idea of structures changing our environments. An environment must give us enough information to take appropriate actions. A stone wall in a field represents human boundaries and barriers imposed on nature and other humans. Similarly, an app like Facebook comes with its own boundaries and rules about what it does. This introduces the notion of everything created by humans, whether digital or physical, as structures added to the environment.

A Conventional Definition of ContextEdit

In this section, Hinton explores a traditional understanding of context and its elements:

  •     Context -- circumstances that surround the subject
  •     Agent -- entity trying to understand the subject
  •     Subject-- the part of the circumstances the agent attempts to understand
  •     Understanding -- trying to create meaning of the circumstance

This definition presents the agent outside of the subject and circumstances, connected through the agent's understanding. In the previous example, the wall (agent) changes the nature of the field (context), making a previous agent (wall) part of the context. An animal who sees the wall is the agent, and it's context includes a former agent, the wall. This introduces the idea that the agent cannot be separated from the context, because the agent's activity changes the context. This interconnectivity introduces context as an ever changing system.

Hinton also presents the idea that perception and language change context. The word 'calendar' implies a visible schedule. But in Hinton's airport story, his digital calendar had different privacy and feed settings that led to others not being able to see his calendar. Hinton's perceived a calendar as something static and viewable by all. He didn't realize digital digital calendars had different contexts than physical ones. Hinton, as an agent, had to understand the circumstances surrounding the subject, his digital calendar. Once he did this, he was able to understand the meaning of the digital calendar and what actions he was allowed to take

A New Working, Definition of ContextEdit

Hinton finally introduces a working definition of context that guides the rest of the book: "Context is an agent's understanding of the relationships between the elements of the agent's environment"[1]. In this definition, context is not it's entity, but context is dependent upon how an agent perceives his surroundings. When comparing the contexts of different agents, each agent will have a different context depending on how they see the world.

This new working definition for context includes the following elements:

  •     Agent--something that acts in the environment
  •     Understanding--engagement with and making sense of surroundings
  •     Relationships between elements--how parts relate
  •     Environment--surroundings of the agent

Modes of InformationEdit

Information is required to facilitate perception or understanding. Without information, an agent is unable to understand their environment well enough to take the appropriate actions. Information is used to describe something told or communicated, regardless of whether the message was understood by the receiver. We are living in the "Information Age" where information can be code, written instructions, or credits at the end of a movie. Understanding the different modes information is conveyed through is crucial to understanding context in different environments. The three modes of information include:

  •     Physical--tangible, material objects and senses that an agent might use to navigate their environment
  •     Semantic--spoken human language, including gestures, signs and graphics
  •     Digital--how computers operate and interact with other digital technologies

Starting from the Bottom Edit

Further analysis of the three modes of information gives up pace layers. These pace layers are more detailed levels or channels for information, where the lower layers change slower than the faster layers. These pace layers include:

  •     Perception and cognition is how an agent responds to their environment. This includes both physical and semantic modes of information. This ability to perceive and think changes very slowly for all forms of life
  •     Spoken language, as distinct from simple perception and cognition, is a semantic mode of sharing information. Although languages change over time, the characteristics of language change much slower.
  •     Written and graphical language is an example of a semantic mode of information because of how we use physical objects to encode information for beyond the present moment. Code, a digital mode of information, is written and graphical language embedded on a computer.
  •     Information organization and design allowed humans to organize semantic information in meaningful ways, such as creating maps or diagrams. This study and focus on design led the way for organizing digital modes of information.
  •     Information technology is dependent on the invention of digital software. Although primarily made of code and machine languages, it originates from writing, linguistic theory, and information organization and design.


By examining context in the lens of a system and ecological view, Hinton creates his working definition of context. Marylin Cooper's writing ecology theory includes that writing is "inherently dynamic" and "constantly changing"[2]. This system view is how Hinton describes context, acknowledging how subjects can be agents, agents can be subjects, and the actions of both agents and subjects actively change the context they are in. This is present when Hinton summarizes Paul Dourish by saying "context and...activity...cannot be separated. Context...arises from and is sustained by the activity itself"[3]. The two theories form Hinton's interconnected view of the context and activity.

Hinton describes pace layers as being connected to one or two modes of information. However, he does concede that "the boundaries are actually much more clear and intermingled"[4]. Because each mode of information and pace layer is built off the ones that came before it, the different layers overlap more than Hinton describes. For example, spoken language is only a minor part of how people communicate. Psychologist Albert Mehrabian found that physical non-verbals, such as tone and gesture, are also important in conveying meaning through spoken language[5]. Pace layers written and graphical language and information organization and design are best understood when modeling the physical world. Written language is simply spoken language encoded on physical materials. A map, an example of information organization, is effective because it models the physical information we come in contact with, supported by the semantic language used to describe it. Lastly, information technology is simply an extension of the physical and semantic modes of information. According to Bolter, "Electronic writing still requires our physical interactions with terrestrial materials"[6]. Whether one writes in code or a spoken language, the semantic mode of information is present, along with the physical means to create it.


  1. Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language and Information Architecture. Sebastopol. O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 25
  2. Cooper, Marilyn M.. “The Ecology of Writing”. College English 48.4 (1986): 364–375. Web...
  3. Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language and Information Architecture. Sebastopol. O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 25
  4. Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language and Information Architecture. Sebastopol. O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 32