Context is Key

May 20th, 2005

Context gets lost over time. People forget why certain things were so important either because they weren’t alive or no one really explained it to them.

I have a friend who thinks The Beatles are the most overrated band in music history. He doesn’t like any of their music and doesn’t understand why they have such a following. The fact that he doesn’t like their music is a reasonable claim but the key to understanding why The Beatles are as popular as they are is to look at the context of their albums; to see why people were so blown away.

When Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band came out in June of 1967 there was nothing like it. Previous to this album there had been nothing else that ventured this far into the realm of pop music and tested what it could really sound like. If this album were released today, Pitchfork would write it off as a pop album worth a listen but nothing stellar or groundbreaking. The thing to remember is that this album came out nearly forty years ago. It set the standard for what an experimental pop record could sound like without alienating the listener. Without this album, there would be no Franz Ferdinand, The Strokes, or Radiohead. Well, ok, that’s arguable but it’s safe to say the face of music would be vastly different than it is today if it were not for The Beatles and albums like Sgt. Pepper’s and Revolver

A second example of lost context is the work of Albert Einstein and the theory of general relativity. You can see his famous equation E=mc˛ all over the place. In office supply advertisements, commercials on tv, television shows… it’s everywhere and has been for years. I’d wager that E=mc˛ is the most recognizable mathematical equation in regards to authorship and it probably always will be.

Parellel to this, I’d wager that most people who can point out that E=mc˛ is Albert Einstein’s equation wouldn’t be able to tell you what the variables stand for or what the equation represents as a whole. The meaning of the equation has been lost and Albert Einstein is nothing more than a pop culture icon to be put on t-shirts and coffee mugs.

See, Einstein’s postulation of the theory of general relativity overturned about six hundred years of Newtonian physics. Not only that, Einstein basically said “I have this theory that explains the nature of the entire galaxy, nay, the universe and you know what? We can test it during this next eclipse and see if I’m right!” (say it in a German accent, it’s more fun that way).

Einstein was, in fact, right and is the most famous physicist since Newton himself. It’s important to remember the context, though. It’s important to realize that while we take the notion of relativity for granted, at the time it was a very radical and new idea.

I guess what I’m saying is; try and encapsulate anything you examine in its own context, especially when that event/place/person/thing exists in a certain time period that you yourself may not have experienced. Context is the key to understanding the world and why things are the way they are.

Well, context and conceptualization. Read my next entry for my thoughts on conceptualization.

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