Pay Attention (Book Review)

book coverA review of
Ambient Commons: Attention in an Age of Embodied Information
By Malcolm McCullough
MIT Press, 2013

Malcolm McCullough, a professor of architecture at the University of Michigan, was a well-received invited speaker at UPA 2004. Our evaluations of his session were strongly positive, and many of us still fondly remember his witty combination of intellectual scholarship and truths about contemporary society. In Ambient Commons, his third book from MIT Press, he continues his observations on cognition and architecture at the elementary level where architecture and communication intersect. Many of his comments are addressed specifically to those of us who play roles in information design and interactions with “the built environment.”

According to McCullough, many people walk around with their eyes and brains locked in the embrace of “glowing rectangles” (LED displays and touch screens) ignoring “the ambient delights of the unmediated world.” For him, the ambient is everything in our immediate surroundings, including—among things we notice or don’t notice—the pervasive music on our headphones, speaker systems, and in elevators, but also the breeze rustling leaves in the trees. It’s all about paying attention…or not.

The commons—as in civic open space, a park, or community gardens—is traditionally a physical space that is not owned by anyone but is shared by everyone. Exploring the commons, McCullough indulges in “psychogeography,” a practice defined fifty years ago by “situationists” who deplored humanity’s slide into monoculture and advocated walking among, and noticing, “less-noticed things.” Please notice that McCullough is a speaker and writer who makes fluent use of new vocabulary, as in “crowd-sourcing the infrastructure” or “a DIY commons”—not an oxymoron here but a variation on “inescapably shared information [which] becomes a new kind of commons.”

Word games? Absolutely, but with serious respect for the inconvenient truths some of his unconventional language reveals. McCullough refers to “planetary change,” rather than either “global warming” or “climate change,” thereby avoiding offense to either the American left or right. From early in the text through his conclusions, he insists that what he’s put together is not a thesis but an “inquiry,” one that invites our participation.

The structure of this inquiry leads us through a seductive progression from the obvious (a view of sunlight crossing a wall) to the sophisticated (“governing the ambient, as if it were a commons.”) Chapter 4, a definition of “embodiment,” is a pivot that moves readers from the inescapable observation of our surroundings to a “cognitive science of engagement,” whether initiated by the individual or the circumstances surrounding the individual.

A sample of McCullough’s text and thinking:
“In architecture and urbanism, you can’t just turn off the screen or flip to another channel. You have to live in the artifacts. Despite how private and public players have shaped particular elements of built space, there is always some common circumstance to inhabitation, a circumstance that shapes action and perception. Now, as information technologies infuse these circumstances, how does that affect inhabitation?”

Chapter 6, “Tagging the Commons,” inventories all kinds of “tags”—spray paint, stickers and stencils, posters and handbills, carved inscriptions, banking and other corporate logos, rampant signage, RFID chips, and more. “Advertising makes brands into places and places into brands,” says McCullough (like the San Francisco Giants’ home at “AT&T Park” down the street from where I’m working). The danger that lurks in such an exhaustive survey of what’s happening around us is that some of the facts can begin to sound dated, including community governments’ not-so-recent efforts to deal with ubiquitous signage and spray paint.

As an architect, McCullough naturally uses schematic drawings as part of his vocabulary, such as the frequent use of squares divided into quadrants to compare, for example, sent versus intrinsic information in specialized versus generalized contexts. As a professor, he also offers summaries of the key takeaways at the end of each chapter, the Main Idea, Counterargument, Key Terms, What Has Changed, Catalyst, Related Field, and Open Debate.

One key to this inquiry is paying attention to “the built environment,” where the high resolution and low demands of architecture provide a base for sense-making. Buildings loaded with signage or GPS interactions with our portable electronics offer opportunities for both the exercise and the occasional rest of our attention; they can be a refuge from “peak distraction” and “data smog.” The implications for information design and human interaction are huge.

The book is both a delight to read and a call to action in two ways. Civilized human beings need to disengage from their glowing rectangles and appreciate the world around us, and design professionals need to pay attention to the information content of our environment.

Bugental, J. (2014). Pay Attention (Book Review). User Experience Magazine, 14(3).
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