Ambient Awareness: Learning to Pay Attention Again

Submerged in an environment of inescapable media, cultivating the ability to pay attention is becoming crucial to success.
By Malcolm McCullough
July 2013
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The world is filling with ever more kinds of media, in ever more contexts and formats. Glowing rectangles have become part of the scene; screens, large and small, appear everywhere. Amid this flood, your attention practices matter more than ever. You might not be able to tune this world out. So it is worth remembering that underneath all these augmentations and data flows, fixed forms persist, and that to notice them can improve other sensibilities. In Ambient Commons (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2013), Malcolm McCullough explores the workings of attention though a rediscovery of surroundings. The following excerpt from chapter 1, “Ambient,” introduces you to the idea that cultivating your attention and a general mindfulness is a key necessity to managing our current social landscape. 

Ambient Awareness and Paying Attention

What do you notice? As a flood of information pours into ever more aspects of life, your focus becomes vital. Attention has become something to guard and to manage. Ambient Commons aims to help you cultivate yours through a rediscovery of your surroundings.

Right now your everyday environments are filling with ever more kinds of information, in ever newer formats of technology, used in ever more activities of life. Some of these make the world more understandable, even pleasant, but many less helpful ones prove difficult to escape. Whether carried about in your bag, hung on walls, or built into everyday objects, media feeds seem to be everywhere, as if people would suffer without them. Unlike the soot and din of a bygone industrial age, many of these feeds have been placed deliberately, and many of them appeal to the senses.

The appeal of this interface culture seems especially evident in the number of people walking (or driving) around staring at their smartphones. The interface arts have become the most prominent arts, especially since technology has spread beyond the desktop, work has left the office, and social play has networked at street level. There, as positional technology comes of age, new forms of interfaces reconnect to the world around—not just coordinates or tags for places to go, but also a dense aggregation of other technologies about environments, cities, and buildings.

Lately, that aggregation has been changing. There has been an invasion of glowing rectangles—ever more computer screens of ever more sizes, in ever more places. And not just an invasion of screens but also one of networked objects, sensor fields, positional traces, information shadows, and “big data.” This new era of interface designs is transforming the use of the city. Car and bike share systems for instance, would not have worked as well before now. Also on the rise are do-it-yourself applications and installations to monitor, tag, catalog, or curate everything from local plants to historical images to neighborhood lore. Many of these productions are said to “augment” their immediate surroundings, not just fill them with feeds and pointers to someplace else. Yet however much augmented, the city is also unmediated experience: fixed forms persist underneath all these augmentations and data flows, and for that you might be thankful. Without persistent environments, the sense of confusion and flux might only worsen. To have forgotten surroundings may indeed be a cause of overload in the first place.

Remembering can occur one detail at a time. A patch of sun slowly crossing a wall might produce a sense of calm while you work. It might remind you how not all that informs has been encoded and sent. Its higher resolution and lower visual demands can restore your attention in a world that is otherwise too often low resolution and insistent.

Similarly, the layout of your studio might affect the work you do there. Its tools and configurations could suggest possibilities. In many such everyday situations, the intrinsic structure of embodied space may affect your habits more than you know. It might actually shape some of your thoughts. Technology designers, neuroscientists, architects, and personal productivity consultants increasingly seem to agree on that.

Sometimes when people in many separate fields find themselves working in parallel on what proves to be one overarching issue, that issue acquires a new name. Getting a name then makes this subject matter more accessible, and brings still other fields into the conversation. “Light pollution,” for instance, identifies an important interdisciplinary set of concerns that were formerly much more difficult to address. For many such phenomena, historians later take interest in how the name first caught on. “Information commons” arose in the late 1990s to emphasize intellectual property regimes on the net. “Ambient information” caught on in the first decade of the new millennium, as smart things, tangible interfaces, ubiquitous displays, and perpetual messaging all came into their own. “Ambient commons” isn’t yet such a phrase: apart from a few musicians, almost nobody uses it. “Commons” itself seems familiar enough, maybe too much so through its many misuses. “Ambient” seems the more inviting way to begin.

What Is Ambient?

The word ambient usually occurs as an adjective. Ambient light, for example, lets you see the north face of a mountain, which (on the northern half of the planet) is always in the shade. Ambient temperature and lighting systems, the subject matter of environmental technology, are now being rediscovered by architects and put to use in green building.

Perhaps the most culturally resonant use of the word occurs as ambient music. Search “ambient commons” and you will find mostly musicians describing their small communities of practice. Ambient music is no small niche, however; critic Mark Prendergast proclaimed the last one hundred years of music the “Ambient Century.” His book by that name traced musical influences past landmarks such as Miles Davis’s In a Silent Way, or more esoterically, the humming power lines of La Monte Young—all the way back to the pioneering works of Claude Debussy, who famously wrote: “I should prefer the creation of a music that has neither motifs nor themes, a more universal music.” Yet, across the intervening century, what really became universal was the listening, which became possible to do almost anywhere. Today you can buy underwater speakers for your swimming pool. If Debussy were to visit, how might he react to Pink Floyd cascading from supermarket ceilings?

Even more ubiquitous than audio, there is ambient advertising. This expression generally means advertising in proximity to the point of interest. It also means subtle: the ambient advertising industry wants its messages to be remembered, but unnoticed. Subtlety has everything to do with placement. As one agency’s mission statement once explained: “Ambient Planet delivers marketing messages to consumers wherever they may be and preferably in the environment where they would be most receptive to the message.” For a long time now, “out-of-home” advertising has been the biggest growth horizon for the industry. Although huge electronic billboards cause more controversy, smaller advertisements appear almost everywhere, as if no surface is too small to be left bare. Then, where every surface has already been covered, additional panels may be attached, as to the hoses of gas pumps. There is always room for more: as yet, nobody has bought the naming rights to the sides of the second base bag at Yankee Stadium, which has high exposure to camera feeds; even that could be unsurprising. Altogether, advertising stops at nothing. As a cultural force, it has few equals. And as environmental experience, it often leaves you little choice but to tune out the world.

Perhaps just as powerfully, social media also lay a claim to the word ambient. Small everyday signals of activity can be enough to tell you someone is around, to let you feel that you are together, without your having to speak or meet face-to-face every day. As explained in Lisa Reichelt’s Twitter-friendly coinage of “ambient intimacy,” social media use countless trivial messages to build a detailed portrait, even an imagined presence, of a friend. At least to some degree, this restores a lost kind of awareness found in traditional life. The upstairs shutters are opened, the bicycle is gone from its usual spot at the usual time, deliveries are being made, and the neighbors are gossiping. To their enthusiasts, social media re-create some of this environmental sense, albeit across the necessary distances and at the accelerated paces of the metropolis.

On the ascent of Twitter in 2008, New York Times columnist Clive Thompson explained the “paradox of ambient awareness”:

Each little update—each individual bit of social information—is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting. This was never before possible, because in the real world, no friend would bother to call you up and detail the sandwiches she was eating. The ambient information becomes like “a type of E.S.P.,” as Haley described it to me, an invisible dimension floating over everyday life. 

Ambient awareness can reflect a more general mindfulness, of course. Almost any use of the word ambient suggests some aspect of sensibility. Once considered irrelevant or a luxury in modern industrial cultures, sensibility to surroundings has become important again. In an era of changing planetary circumstances, personal attention to immediate surroundings seems like a manageable first step toward some huge cultural shift. Amid that transformation, the role of technology shifts as well, away from a means to overcome the world toward a means to understand it.

To information technologists, ambient interface represents an important new paradigm, with ubiquity and embodiment as first principles. Interaction design, the discipline best positioned to affect how you deal with technology, shapes not only sensory smartphones but also situated technologies. This is the form of ambient of most interest here.

Ambient Interface

The interface arts address the play of attention. To create ever more usable interfaces, designers work to reduce cognitive load: better design makes technology more intuitive and less obtrusive. Until recently, interaction designers have focused more on how users apply technology in the foreground of attention, as a deliberative task, for an intended purpose—and less on the role of context, or the importance of tacit knowledge, and how these shape intent. Within the arts of interface, ambient has been a fairly recent development.

Around the millennium, a paradigm shift from cyberspace to pervasive computing began to change those goals. Instead of mostly sitting passively at a desk, (“parking your atoms,” as they said in the 1990s), users increasingly brought technology along into the existing world, in all its messy complexity, and sometimes they also built more of it in. Interaction designers turned to making new kinds of interfaces for this newly hybrid reality. The more their interface designs employed physical gestures or presence, became parts of larger objects, and seemed to fill the world, the more those interfaces could be said to embody information. To speak of embodied information helps to emphasize that not all computing is mobile; there are situated technologies, too.

Research in “ambient” technology began well before these recent interests. For example, one seminal project from the 1990s was the “Ambient Room” at the MIT Media Lab. In this cubicle-as-monitor, the most noteworthy surface was the ceiling, which projected an animation of waves radiating across a water surface. The speed and size of these waves reflected different data of the occupant’s choosing. This space may have been the first to move the display from figure to background. Since then, information technologies have moved the display still farther away, with nontextual background representations of markets, traffic, energy usage, and more. These technologies are no longer something to sit at; they no longer command full attention.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Ambient Commons: Attention in the Age of Embodied Information by Malcolm McCullough, and published by Massachusetts Institute of Technology , 2013. 


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