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How Will We Reclaim and Shape the Ambient Commons?

When I pump gas in my car these days, there is a video screen on the pump that abruptly turns on and starts shouting an annoying advertisement in my face.  It is so loud and obnoxious that it takes great restraint to not smash the damn screen with my car keys.  (For the record, the gas station is a Cumberland Farms convenience store.)

Thanks to architecture professor Malcolm McCullough of the University of Michigan, I now have a vocabulary for talking about such vandalism against our shared mental environment.  It is a desecration of the ambient commons.  The ambient commons consists of all of those things in our built environment, especially in cities, that we take for granted as part of the landscape:  architectural design, urban spaces, designs that guide and inform our travels, amenities for social conviviality.  Professor McCullough explores these themes in his fascinating new book, Ambient Commons:  Attention in the Age of Embodied Information (MIT Press).

Not many peole have rigorously thought about how new information technologies are changing the ambient commons of cities.  Nowadays media feeds are everywhere -- on building facades, billboards, hotel lobbies, restaurants, elevators and even gas pumps.  About three in five of us carry around smartphones, which have radically changed how we navigate the city.  GPS and Google Maps are a new form of annotated “wayfinding” that makes signage and tourist guidebooks less necessary.  The Internet of Things – sensor-readable RFID tags on objects – make the cityscape more “digitally legible” in ways that previously required architectural design. 

It has reached such a state that many retailers now use sensors on our smartphones to track our movements, behavior and moods during the course of browsing stores.  Retailers want to assemble a database of in-store customer behavior (just as they collect data during our website visits) so that they can adjust product displays, signage and marketing in ways that maximize sales.  This was described by a recent New York Times article and accompanying video, “Attention, Shoppers:  Store is Tracking Your Cell."   

The explosive growth in the “number, formats and contexts of situated images” in the city means that we now experience a cityscape in different ways.  We identify our locations, find information, connect with each other and experience life in different ways.  The embedded design elements of the ambient commons affect how we think, behave and orient ourselves to the world. 

“We move around with and among displays,” writes McCullough notes.  “Global rectangles have become part of the [urban] scene; screens, large and small, appear everywhere.  Physical locations are increasingly tagged and digitally augmented.  Sensors, processes and memory are found not only in chic smartphones but also into everyday objects.”

In this transdisciplinary book of great erudition and yet clarity, McCullough tries to give us a conceptual framework for thinking about how our attention – via the ambient commons – is being rewired.  Although this grand project of appropriating our mental environment is mostly the province of commercial interests, the democratization of smartphones and other digital technologies have given commoners their own tools for reclaiming the ambient commons to suit their needs.  In other words, there is an unnamed contest underway that commoners should attend to.

Historically, commoners have had few ways to affect the ambient commons except through such marginal tools as “urban markup languages” such as graffiti and adhesive art and “slap tagging” of the sort made by Shepard Fairey (“Obey Giant”).  This lineage has morphed into digital territory now as people use smartphones to develop new “wayfinding” systems.  One example is QRC stickers (Quick Response Code) that let people use their smartphones to scan the image and learn more information.  Semapedia has generated over 50,000 tags that let people link a physical location to Wikipedia entries. 

A new generation of “augmented reality apps” on smartphones are altering how we interact with the physical environment.  Two examples:  a smartphone app to scan words in a foreign language and get an instantaneous translation, and another app to scan the stars in the sky to learn which constellations they constitute.  When Google Glass is finally introduced to the world, it too is likely to change how people interact with the world and each other, in both good and bad ways.  (This is one innovation that I do not look forward to.)

To understand how this bewildering flux of digital technologies is changing urban social life, McCullough set out to write “an environmental history of information.”  He wants to investigate how information has been communicated over time in urban contexts and how architectural design should change to accommodate it.  But given the abuses of the ambient commons, he also wants to explore how the ambient commons might be governed. 

This is necessary because the “intrinsic structure of a space” – that is, the embedded design of a plaza or a building façade -- are no longer as stable and permanent as they once were.  Architecture has historically provided a “fixity” to meaning and experience.  But with the arrival of ubiquitous computing, mobile phones and touchscreens throughout our everyday experience, our sense of place, paradoxically, has retreated into the periphery.  As McCullough writes, “People may suspend not only disbelief about where they are at the moment, but eventually also a more general sensibility to surroundings.” 

It used to be that certain settings – a plush hotel lobby; a hushed library; a crowded subway car; a public park – conveyed certain social cues about how to behave and what should be going on in a given place.  Now, as the fixity of urban context evaporates as our consciousness moves to our smartphones, we are becoming overwhelmed with information overload and complexity.

This has obvious implications for the ambient commons.  If all the nooks and crannies of buildings, public spaces and flat surfaces are given over to commercial vendors, each vying for our attention, what then will happen to our shared consciousness, our shared experience of the city?  McCullough writes:  “We must return to [ideas of the commons] with respect to networked urban resources, with respect to environmental history of information and with respect to attention itself.  They raise fundamental questions about civility, the distracted urban citizen and the public good.”

The ambient commons raises deeper questions about how we think. While most of us like to think that our minds are located in our individual bodies, cognitive scientists have shown that we really inhabit an “extended mind.”  We rely upon all sorts of physical objects and landscapes that help orient ourselves and think – literally.  Take a person out of his own kitchen and he will have trouble cooking because he won’t know where ingredients are located.  Andy Clark, a leading cognitive scientist, describes how in real life, “memory [works] as pattern re-creation instead of data retrieval; problem solving as pattern completion and transformation; the environment as an active resource and not just a domain problem; and the body as part of the computational loop, and not just an input device.”

In other words, “you aren’t your brain.”  Your thinking is critically influenced by the context, which functions as a form of “extended cognition.”  We think with the objects that constitute the ambient commons.  In a literal way, the design of a city shapes how we think.  Our consciousness is shaped not just by what we choose to pay attention to, but by all sorts of embedded designs that are pre-cognitive and even atmospheric. 

In other words, the internal and the external are tightly intertwined, a lesson that any commoner should fully appreciate.  “The brain builds constructs to allocate resources for frequently encountered processes so that they no longer require so much higher-level deliberation.”  What happens when those frequently encountered processes include lots and lots of glowing rectangular screens yammering for our attention?  When those screens are force-feeding us ads and screaming at us with sensationalism?  This is a serious environmental problem of the ambient commons that needs our attention.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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