Ambient Commons

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= concept and book


"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." [1]

The Book

* Book: Malcolm McCullough. Ambient Commons: Attention in the Age of Embodied Information. MIT Press, 2013.



David Bollier:

"“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." (