The Inescapability of Ambient Computing

Always-listening, always-watching computers want to help—maybe too much

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The word ambient began its english career innocently enough, as a form of the Latin verb ambire, “to go around,” and writers used it to describe something that was lying around or encircling something else. By the end of the 17th century, the meaning of ambient had expanded, so to speak, to describe anything that completely surrounded or circumfused an area or volume, as in the ambient air or ambient light. By the middle of the 20th century, audio engineers spoke of ambient sound (the atmospheric sounds in a particular area, particularly background noise picked up by a microphone), and by the late 1970s audio listeners spoke of ambient music (music that aimed to invoke a particular mood or atmosphere).

That might have been it for a solid but unremarkable word. But modern technologists and futurists have continued to give ambient new duties in a world where information and interfaces are everywhere.

Remember back around the turn of the century, when the resolution of a dinner party disagreement had to wait until everyone could return to their computers in order to Google the answer? Now, of course, people just pull out their smartphones and look up the answer on the spot. This is the first stage of an ideal called ambient findability: being able to find anything from anywhere at any time. For this to work requires ambient connectivity, the ability to get online no matter where you are.

For now, this connectivity comes via our smartphones and wearables such as Google Glass, but in the future (so say the futurists) we’ll connect using voice-activated ambient interfaces that are seemingly everywhere and nowhere, glanceable ambient displays, and ambient devices that offer touch-everywhere surfaces.

The point of all this is to achieve two ideals. The first is ambient informatics, where information is always readily available. The second is ambient intelligence, a surrounding electronic infrastructure that responds to its environment, particularly the presence of people.

Some see these ideals as strictly positive goals that will enable life-enhancing developments such as being able to see or hear art wherever and whenever you want (ambient art) or the ability to stay in touch with family and friends instantly and constantly (ambient intimacy). On a more mundane level, business types seek the ability of consumers to purchase anything, anywhere, anytime—the inevitable ambient commerce.

But is being surrounded by information and data connections always a good thing? Constant connectivity can lead to constant work, as many a modern employee has found. Writing in The New Republic, Stephen Poole laments that “our world has become an ambient factory from which there is no visible exit.” When Google’s engineering director envisions a world in which embedded microphones constantly listen to our conversations so that the company can swiftly answer our queries, technology critic Nicholas Carr rightly lampoons the idea by calling it the Ambient Nag. In the here and now, we have the inline tweet, a selected snippet of an article or blog post formatted as a special link that enables readers to easily post it as a tweet. Some see this as a convenience, but others have derided it as ambient tweetability.

Perhaps we should forget information overload and instead worry about ambient overload, where interfaces, connections, and sensors are all but inescapable. The academic Malcolm McCullough (in his terrific book Ambient Commons) counsels that these ambient information practices mean we must now take a different approach to technology: “Henceforth, may you seek, inhabit, and maintain surroundings that are less thoughtlessly layered in media, and more discriminately curated for use.” Call it ambient curation, the necessary survival skill in the Age of the Ambient.

This article originally appeared in print as “Ambient Is Everywhere.”

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