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.”