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.


| July 2013



Ambient Commons Book Cover

"Ambient Commons" invites you to look past current obsessions with smart phones and other media to rethink attention itself, to care for more situated, often ineludible forms of information.

Cover Courtesy Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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. 

To find more books that pique our interest,
visit the
Utne Reader Bookshelf.

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.