Within the Context of No Context (We Read So You Don’t Have To)


In the current business and media environment, simply making sense feels like a rare achievement. In his 1980 essay “Within the Context of No Context,” originally published in The New Yorker and subsequently reissued as a short book, George W.S. Trow saw his world as one in which technology rendered culture and the large world as simply silly. And this was 36 years ago! NewCo readers might dismiss Trow as a Luddite as he rips into the very idea of television, the dominant media of that moment, calling it “the force of no-history,” its popularity fueled by “the use of false love.” It’s not so different an argument of what today’s social network naysayers are emitting. But what sets Trow apart from knee-jerk cynics — and what makes Within the Context of No Context an essential read for business and technology readers at this late date — is how he aimed to shine a light on elements of our culture so important that no one before him noticed. In an example that still feels momentous, he identifies the most important moment in the history of television as “the moment when a man named Richard Dawson, the ‘host’ of a program called Family Feud, asked contestants to guess what a poll of a hundred people had guessed would be the height of the average American woman. Guess what they’ve guessed. Guess what they’ve guessed the average is.” No facts, no context, just guesses, like decisions made via bad or no data. Trow insists we open our eyes and look beyond what we think is obvious and self-evident — but surely isn’t. Within the Context of No Context isn’t an optimistic book. Trow doesn’t have a prescription for change that we expect from such polemics. But he lays out a situation that still feels very present. It’s up to us, not him, to change things.

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