The Ambient


The word ambient comes from ancient origins that express a cosmological embrace. For a metaphor of this embrace, imagine information technology as a modern firmament. The famous woodcut from Camille Flammarion’s The Atmosphere (1888) depicts a firmament in which a medieval man dares to look beyond the sheltering sky, into the modern technological world.

When a lonely person pulls out his or her smartphone, is that to seek the cosmological comfort of a new kind of firmament? To judge by the widespread casual use of media, the very presence of information seems to sooth more than its absence. Restaurants place televisions around as much for comfort as for any actual viewing. Stores all play music, and if you ask why, their managers will tell you that silence is bad for business, for it makes people uncomfortable.

Notions of media dependencies amid jaded overload have been prominent in cultural theory for more than a century, ever since the work of Simmel and his contemporary, Emile Durkheim, became known. Indeed, ever since modern industrial urbanization, when so many new technologies pulled so many communications out of their traditional cultural contexts, a blasé outlook has been the norm among city dwellers. The time has come to reconsider that oft-cited trope. Today, you must remember to look to the other side of the technological firmament, into a timeless but endangered world of direct experience.

The experience of technology has changed so much since the industrial city and the heyday of print and broadcast media that it is time to reexamine the urban citizen’s distraction. Much of the change has been away from command by any one information medium. The world has been filling with many new kinds of ambient interfaces. Nothing may be designed on the assumption that it will be noticed. Many more things must be designed and used with the ambient in mind. Under these circumstances, you might want to rethink attention.