City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.


Malcolm McCullough is one the key thinkers and writers about the intersection of the network, digital media, and the urban and architectural—hence his work being of particular interest here. So I was delighted to oblige when he asked me to provide a testimonial for the back of his latest book, "Ambient Commons; Attention in the age of embodied interaction".

I've included the longer version of that testimonial below, in lieu of a more formal review, followed by a series of key passages I noted upon reading the book. These are not the only interesting bits, I hasten to add—the whole book is worth reading, and as a whole. Still, these are annotations I made at the time, in Sterling Format.

McCullough's insights into high and low resolution, focus, attention, immanent data, context suggesting intent, and the nature of the ambient, are hugely useful. I can't recommend the book highly enough to those interested in what the present and future of the contemporary urban landscape might look like when refracted through a rich understanding of the past. Despite being the "wake up call" I describe below, it's also a very peaceful book, a learned book that's a good read, a poetic book which has a pleasurable calm about it.

For me, having pursued an agenda of talking about technology as culture for the past couple of years in Domus (as well as a decade here), it provides a fantastic example of how to do just that, with respect to understanding digital culture and interaction design through the broader lens of architecture and urbanism. 

And, of course, vice versa. 

In doing so, like Rory Hyde's recent book, it actually sketches out a relevant role for architects in future, which is something you won't find in mainstream architectural discourse. So architects might want to read it just as much as interaction designers.

Full testimonial
Ambient Commons is both a timely, if highly civilised, wake-up call and a hugely valuable guidebook to the new post-"digital" landscape of contemporary urban culture.

In suggesting we "take back our attention", genuinely consider our surroundings, take notice of the world, McCullough argues for a radical rebalancing of our patterns of living, working, playing – not as a refusenik, but as engaged and critical designer and thinker, and backed up by building on a bravura free-wheeling whistle-stop tour through an "environmental history of urban information".

As physical and digital entwine such that they can rarely be separated, the relationship between disciplines and perspectives becomes increasingly complex and interwoven too. "Ambient Commons" demonstrates how a book can strategically expand the perspective, toolkit and practical vocabulary of the designers, coders and architects who are helping produce the new soft city, but through its open, diverse and richly patterned reference points and positions, it will be engaging and insightful for anyone who wants to understand what's going on on the street of today and tomorrow.

McCullough also demonstrates how important it is that we understand technology as culture, and that it is worthy of philosophical inquiry. He manages to convey these complex ideas such that they feel accessible, yet are rigorously researched, are instantly appealing, yet prompt considered reflection, stoking the engines on many trains of thought.

It is also, unlike most texts that pivot around technology, beautifully written. It is a critical book to have written at this point.

Some choice excerpts
"Whether carried about in your bag, hung on walls, or built into everyday objects, media feeds seem to be everywhere, as if people would suffer without them. Unlike the soot and din of a bygone industrial age, many of these feeds have been placed deliberately, and many of them appeal to the senses."
(((Inadvertently plays to my notion of "new smokestacks".)))

"The interface arts have become the most prominent arts, especially since technology has spread beyond the desktop, work has left the office, and social play has networked at street level."
(((Well said, and still little understood in design culture.)))

"Remembering can occur one detail at a time. A patch of sun slowly crossing a wall might produce a sense of calm while you work. It might remind you how not all that informs has been encoded and sent. Its higher resolution and lower visual demands can restore your attention in a world that is otherwise too often low resolution and insistent."

"Altogether, advertising stops at nothing. As a cultural force, it has few equals. And as environmental experience, it often leaves you little choice but to tune out the world."

"As explained in Lisa Reichelt’s Twitter-friendly coinage of “ambient intimacy,” social media use countless trivial messages to build a detailed portrait, even an imagined presence, of a friend. At least to some degree, this restores a lost kind of awareness found in traditional life. The upstairs shutters are opened, the bicycle is gone from its usual spot at the usual time, deliveries are being made, and the neighbors are gossiping. To their enthusiasts, social media re-create some of this environmental sense, albeit across the necessary distances and at the accelerated paces of the metropolis."

"(T)he role of technology shifts as well, away from a means to overcome the world toward a means to understand it."

"Until recently, interaction designers have focused more on how users apply technology in the foreground of attention, as a deliberative task, for an intended purpose—and less on the role of context, or the importance of tacit knowledge, and how these

"Like the German Umwelt (literally, “surrounding world”), milieu and ambiance also implied an environmental influence on outlook or action."

"Spitzer connected this modern sociological notion back to ancient Greek and Roman cosmologies in which mortals did not merely occupy their environment, but indeed were embraced by it. “For the Latin verb ambire had not only the literal meaning of the Greek verb περιέχειυ; it possessed as well the same connotation of protection, of a warm embrace: cf. [Pliny]: “domis ambiri vitium palmitibus ac sequacibus loris,” Although competing versions and translations of Pliny the Elder exist, one reading is this, “a country house embraced in the shoots of closely reined straps of grapevine.” Except now make that carefully switched runs of fiber-optic cables. Today, that embrace is by information."

"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."

(With respect to cars: )
"How long will it take to recognize the consequences of much wider overreliance on smart devices?"
(((Yes. I've noted this before—in the middle of the smart citizens piece—but driverless cars are a complete dead-end ('scuse the pun.) Outsourcing decision-making to code is not a good idea in this context. "Shared space" systems, which require heightened engagement from drivers, are safer; traffic lights, machines to which decision-making is outsourced, are less safe. Let's learn from that.)))

“Is there anywhere on earth exempt from these swarms of new books?” asked Erasmus, the first modern editor, in the sixteenth century."

"Floridi has advanced a more carefully qualified definition of information: “true semantic content.” With certain exceptions (such as sunrises), being informed generally involves linguistically encoded meanings, at appropriate levels of abstraction, all made intelligible by frames of knowledge. Without these, transmissions that are meaningless or false may too easily be taken for information."

"Floridi calls nonsemantic information like animal tracks or sunrises “immanent data,” where “immanent” means that the form or structure of some phenomenon is coupled to the state of another, so that form of one indicates state of the other, as fingerprints left at the scene of a theft indicate who were the thieves. Floridi believes such immanent data should be understood as “environmental information.”"

"Intrinsic and embodied information. (a) The ambient increases situated, mediated, and tangible kinds of information. (b) In an imaginable limit case, to be avoided, the unmediated, direct, and intrinsic kinds of information have been forgotten."

"In one of the wisest recent essays on what is commonly referred to as “neuroplasticity,” linguist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker wrote: “Yes, every time we learn a fact or skill, the wiring of the brain changes; it’s not as if the information is stored in the pancreas. But the existence of neural plasticity doesn’t mean the brain is a blob of clay pounded into shape by experience." Instead, neuroplasticity means that habits and tools of engagement matter more than was previously understood. Anyone with a studio practice might understand how context suggests intent. This is why yoga teachers advise setting aside a particular corner of the house for meditation. This is why it is hard to cook in somebody else’s kitchen."

"Thus business and organizational studies emphasize the value of tacit knowledge held by communities of practice. They find that experts don’t so much follow rules as they play situations—the contingent configuration of tools, props, co-present players, and built-in cues and protocols for operation— as a way to bring their environment to attention. For an instance of props, having a prototype on the table shapes what its designers are likely to say"

"Anthony Damasio’s influential 1994 book, Descartes’ Error, argued that the brain and its deliberations are an addition to, not a replacement for, animal biological attention. Melvin Goodale and David Milner’s explanation of “dorsal pathways” had previously argued that tacit environmental perception employs different processes, even different areas of the brain"

"For quite some time, it has been thought that a tool, or even its setting, such as a digital craft studio, is not only for some purpose but also about it. With respect to the capacity of intrinsic structure to influence attention, this means that a set of tools might both put someone in a frame of mind and be essential for building that frame of mind in the first place. Clark referred to this learning effect as “scaffolding.”

"Embodiment makes the difference. Walking provides more embodiment, more opportunity for effortless fascination, and better engagement than looking or sitting. Depending on the balance of fascinating and annoying stimuli, a walk around town may well do some good. That balance is now in play, under the rise of the ambient."

(With respect to BIG's project for Copenhagen, a civic-scale visualisation of data—like the new smokestacksrepresenting collective waste processing via smoke rings, to be viewed from afar.)
"It is an interface you do not operate, and as a part of the scene it is ambient. Such developments in ambient interface may as yet be a sideshow in comparison to how disembodied information media blanket urban space with their screens, but it’s a start."
(((But I'd argue you do operate it…. Just as a citizen, collectively, as part of a civic process. It's not like you can pick out the particular "pixels" of your contribution in the overall visualisation, which is comprised of the entire city's patterns of behaviour, but they are in there. You might perceive that you are part of those patterns in this way – not solely as an individual, but as an individual who is part of a city. There is data to suggest—from Helsinki's Nuages Vert project—that this might engender behavioural change. This is the kind of "civic-scale smart meter" idea I pursued on Low2No, Barangaroo, Masdar etc. I think there's something in it. In fact, I think the civic scale feedback here is more interesting than the individual feedback patterns usually delivered, via personal devices. It is also a performance in the city.)))

"Civic identity has to count high among architecture’s roles."
(((It should do, absolutely. But how many architects perform in this way, are trained in this way?)))

"The point is that many words refer to, or take scope from, where they are exchanged. A dramatist would understand this as “mise-en-scène”: a script needs a setting; objects (props and backdrops) provide orientation. A neuroscientist would understand this as “scaffolding”: the objects and settings that language refers to become building blocks of action and thought. Rich metaphor depends on analogy in spatial experience."

"Habitual action still makes some demands on executive attention. An increase in tacit knowledge involves an increase of attention but a decrease of perceived effort. Where mediations are necessary, they are best made unobtrusive. Better interface design works with the embodiment of tasks and the configurations of the spaces that support and constrain tacit knowledge."

"(N)ineteenth-century buildings were covered with hand-painted signs. Although you can see relatively little evidence of signage in surviving portrayals of urban scenes before modern, literate times, such as Italian Renaissance paintings, other emblems of trades, perhaps considered inappropriate to include in precious paintings, appear in the engravings of William Hogarth and other artists of the eighteenth century. A major obstacle to compiling a complete environmental history of information is how little of everyday streetscapes survives either in images or in print."
(((Indeed, now living in a 14th century city, there are traces of frescos on almost all the older buildings, on the ceilings of all colonnades, under overhangs—everywhere. The buildings, now in dusty faded terracotta and pastels, would once have been a riot of colours, patterns and symbolic information.)))

"The considered life requires a balance between messages and things, between mediated and unmediated experience."

"Does having more ambient information make you notice the world more, or less? Can mediation help you tune in to where you are? Or does it just lower the resolution of life?"

"(T)he Internet shakes the university to its core; presumably, the two are now breeding a new heir."
(((The first statement is true. The second? Not without a little help, at least not with purpose and foresight. And no, it's not massive open online courses (MOOCs). MOOCs are the mp3 of education – they radically disrupt the distribution of information, but that's only one slice of the wider pie. mp3s have not radically changed music; largely only distribution. Likewise, MOOCs are the low-hanging fruit of learning: the easiest bit to translate and transmit, and the lowest value component. It is learning at its simplest, its most mundane. This is still useful as it frees up education – say, the university – to spend its time and resources doing something higher value instead – focusing on moments of intense, engaged collaboration, together in physical space. The rest can be displaced: with a hand; it is no great loss. No more than compact discs, and their absurdly-named "jewel boxes". Anyway.)))

"The role of architecture seems central to future inquiries into attention. The cognitive role of architecture is to serve as banks for the rivers of data and communications, to create sites, objects, and physical resource interfaces for those electronic flows to be about. At the same time, architecture provides habitual and specialized contexts by which to make sense of activities. And, where possible, architecture furnishes rich, persistent, attention-restoring detail in which to take occasional refuge from the rivers of data."
(((Very good. Again, you won't see architects getting this pointed out at architecture school much currently – with a few honourable exceptions – but there's a good role for architecture in future (alongside many other things of course.))))


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