Preface to the Paperback Edition
Sensibility to surroundings matters more, not less, in a life that is ever more mediated by technology. However astonishing the collection of contacts and apps in your pocket may be, it still needs a world outside your life to engage, and for the flood of messages to be about.
Meanwhile some sensibility needs no messages at all. For instance a skillful practice in a specialized context cultivates a hands-on sensibility where you know more than you can say. Presence, engagement, and quiet fascination can reward and restore in ways that perpetual entertainment cannot. Whether in professional work, arts, sports, or simple street smarts, people prize such situational awareness for how it gets them into a zone, into effortless flow. So it is wrong to assume, as perhaps a factory, a classroom, or a world flooded with commercial competition for eyeballs would have you do, that attention is something to “pay.” That is the one belief that most reactions to this book have had trouble recognizing. This book does not ask anyone to “pay attention” to their surroundings. Instead it investigates other more effortless kinds of attention, as understood through some interesting shifts in the cognitive science of embodiment. While many books from a variety of fields have inquired into that, this has been among the first to do so from the perspective of the built environment.
Architecture invests great value in surroundings, of course. Yet more people (and especially architects) could value the built environment more from the perspective of everyday experience, and less about impressive novelties in physical form. The increased valuation of environment that planetary imperatives demand begins at home, not far away, and in habits of use, not just changing technology. Design must help appreciate the world instead of conquering it or just tuning it out. This wish for sensibility cannot be dismissed as romanticism. A more complete environmentalism, one in which the built and media-saturated world is environment too, has become the most pragmatic agenda of all.
“Information environmentalism” means a concern for the mediated built environment that one and all must inhabit. This is the one concept that most reactions to this book have been most enthusiastic about. To write an entire book on this would take many more case studies, and deeper knowledge of law. Yet there are some simple observations that have caught on here. While in some ways this concern may seem as normal as the etiquette of not speaking out of place, customs seldom keep pace with technological change. Today almost anyone can witness remarkably low situational awareness in smartphone abuse, for instance.
Yet it is the fixed and persistent abuses that seem more troublesome. There is more than etiquette to an information environmentalism. Whatever the impact of mobile technologies, the environmental concern is more for situated information technologies: the billions of sensors, speakers, and screens being built into the world today. Some call it tangible media, physical computing, or ambient interface. However much mobile communications have been altering interpersonal conduct, this persistent environment also alters cultural perceptions. Indeed the ambient media mix has become an important component of many places. Just try finding a store, a hotel, or a restaurant without it. And to find some silence, you might have to pay extra. This means not only the discipline of architecture but also the discipline interaction design needs to rethink contextual attention. They might sometimes do so together. They might do so for higher aims beyond commerce.
To approach that shared experiential realm as a commons does not make it tragic, and does not make you into a Luddite. You don’t have to be against technology to not want it everywhere all the time, and you don’t have to be against markets to admit that they cannot recognize and solve all cultural problems. For as information technology enables so many more of the memberships, monitoring, and micro-transactions that make true commons go, less of the free riding that was dismissed as tragic may occur. For the built environment, this means better restraint and recognition of excesses in noise, signage, and screens ever larger or ever smaller in ever more contexts of life. For instance in light pollution, better outdoor lighting design lets everyone see better while reducing glare, doing more with less, so to speak. This was recognized and put into practice first neither by the market nor the state, but by dot orgs and design advocacy. Is that a commons? Is that information environmentalism? Is there any way to curate the flood of media in ever more formats in ever more situations?
So the next time you have a conversation in someplace saturated with ill-considered media, bring up sensibility to surroundings. This is no mere lament, like being against the cold rain. There are culturally positive ways to move ahead. You may yet have a right to be left alone by all that information technology, but the idea is a much simpler one here. Augment the world in remarkable new media, perhaps, but please don’t cover it, or know it, entirely with screens!
Thanks to many for generally favorable reviews and reactions to these ideas. Thanks to many for sitting down to a longer read in a world where attention, whether effortless, paid, or stolen, has become even more scarce than time. I hope this paperback edition can get still more readers to sit down and flip old fashioned pages, in a medium that you can read without it reading you back. There is still a role for printed books. Especially when read in quietly fascinating surroundings.