“How did you get here?” asks Peter Morville (p. xi) on the first page of his book Ambient Findability (O’Reilly, 2005). It’s not a metaphysical question, but a practical and direct one. Ambience indirectly calls attention to the here we’re in. It is all around us at all times. In Tim Morton’s The Ecological Thought (Harvard University Press, 2010), he explains it this way:
Take the music of David Byrne and Laurie Anderson. Early postmodern theory likes to think of them as nihilists or relativists, bricoleurs in the bush of ghosts. Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” features a repeated sample of her voice and a sinister series of recorded messages. This voice typifies postmodern art materials: forms of incomprehensible, unspeakable existence. Some might call it inert, sheer existence–art as ooze. It’s a medium in which meaning and unmeaning coexist. This oozy medium has something physical about it, which I call ambience (p. 103).
“Ambient” is a loaded, little word at best. You wouldn’t be alone if the first thing that comes to mind upon reading the word is a thoughtful soundscape by Brian Eno. In Ambient Commons: Attention in the Age of Embodied Information (MIT Press, 2013), Malcolm McCullough reclaims the word for our hypermediated surroundings. Claiming that we’ve mediated aspects of our world so well that we’ve obscured parts of the world itself. Looking through the ambient invites us to think about our environment–built, mediated, situated, or otherwise–in a new way. McCullough asks, “Do increasingly situated information technologies illuminate the world, or do they just eclipse it (figure 1.3 below)?” (p. 20). He adds on the book’s website, “Good interaction design reduces the ‘cognitive load’ of artifacts. It also recognizes how activities make use of context, periphery, and background. But now as ever more of the human perceptual field has been engineered for cognition, is there a danger of losing awareness of how environment also informs?” How much can we augment before we begin to obscure?
McCullough’s background as a design practitioner grounds his inquiry in the cognition of the user (He is Associate Professor of Architecture and Design at the University of Michigan). That alone sets Ambient Commons apart from most other books in the field. It’s not against technology, and it’s not cheering it on. It’s a call to more mindful use.
Framing some of the same concerns within the wiry window of networks, Anna Munster’s An Aesthesia of Networks: Conjunctive Experience in Art and Technology (MIT Press, 2013) is also a call for more mindful consideration. “Aesthesia” reinstates experience in and of the network, which is possibly the most pervasive of all our mediating technologies. Using William James’ radical empiricism, viral media, video art, Deleuze and Guattari, and Google Earth, Munster’s approach pushes us past the day-to-day relations of data to the underlying assemblage of networks. Like Peter Krapp’s Noise Channels (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), An Aesthesia… pulls the background to the fore; it makes the ambient evident.
“Ambience points to the here and now,” Morton (2010) continues, “in a compelling way that goes beyond explicit content… ambience opens up our ideas of space and place into radical questioning” (p. 104). Just as poetry calls attention to language, ambience calls attention to place. You are here.
Krapp, Peter. (2011). Noise Channels: Glitch and Error in Digital Culture. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
McCullough, Malcolm. (2013). Ambient Commons: Attention in the Age of Embodied Information. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Morton, Timothy. (2010). The Ecological Thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Morville, Peter. (2005). Ambient Findability (Preface: You Are Here!). Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media.
Munster, Anna. (2013). An Aesthesia of Networks: Conjunctive Experience in Art and Technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.