everyone (especially those not in
the luckiest billion) regards the
world as a sweet place anyway. To
most cultures throughout history,
the world was understood as the
source of intimidating distances,
danger, disease, or drought. Even
so, it was never so far from everyday experience. Only in the past
hundred years did so much of
humanity move indoors full time.
But there is more to this than
stepping outside for a mental-health break. (Of course you may
want to do so sometime—stopping
to smell the roses doesn’t make
you a Luddite.) Cognition research
has demonstrated the restorative
power of quiet fascination with
environments [ 19]. The keyword
there is fascination. What makes this
more than a mental-health break
is neuroplasticity, the brain’s considerable (but sorry, not infinite)
capacity to be changed by habitual,
embodied, adaptive learning. Here
it might help to be a Zen master or
a neuroscientist to explain this, but
somehow those neural pathways
are both better evolved and more
adaptable for habitual fascination
than for nonstop casual entertainment. Especially fascination with
the world. If you are fascinated
enough with the city, and it has
noise pollution under control, you
don’t need any audio feed, and it
may not occur to you to turn your
own music on.
One word for ongoing perceptual habits is sensibility. You can
acquire tastes and dispositions;
life would be dreary if you never
did so. As attention psychology
pioneer William James once put
it, “[M]y experience is what I agree
to attend to” [ 20]. In the age of
superabundance, you more or less
have to take responsibility for your
attention practices. Except now, one
hundred years later, cognitive sci-
3. For two good contrasting trade press inquires
into attention, see Maggie Jackson’s Distracted—
The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age
(2009), and Winifred Gallagher’s Rapt: Attention and
the Focused Life (2009).
4. On history of early overload, search the work of
Ann Blair or Geoff Nunberg.
5. On overload versus overconsumption, search the
work of Linda Stone or Sherry Turkle.
6. Ophir, E., Nass, C., and Wagner, A. D. Cognitive
control in media multitaskers. Proc. of the National
Academy of Sciences 106, 33 (2009).
7. On switching costs and the fallacies of multitasking, search the work of David Meyer.
8. On embodied cognition, search the work of Andy
Clark, Lou Barsalou, Anthony Chemero, or George
Lakoff and Mark Johnson.
9. Clark, A. Being There: Putting Brain, Body and
World Together Again. MI T Press, 1997.
10. On embodiment and activity theory, readers of
this magazine might already know the work of Paul
Dourish, or Victor Kapetelinin and Bonni Nardi.
11. On “information as a material,” see Mike
Kuniavsky’s Smart Things (2011).
12. On sensemaking, search the work of Karl
13. Mitchell, M. Placing Words: Symbols, Space, and
the City. MIT Press, 1995.
14. On a Lexis-Nexis word search of “smart cities” in world news media, two thirds of the ~1000
results from the last thirty years are from the last
15. On walkable urbanism, search the work of Chris
16. On social history of predigital urban information
technology, search the work of Priscilla Ferguson
or David Henkin.
17. Simmel, G. The metropolis and mental life.
1903. For interpretations of Simmel, search the
work of David Frisby.
18. Keizer, G. The Unwanted Noise of Everything We
Want. Public Affairs, 2010. Also noisestories.org
19. Kaplan, R. and Kaplan, S. The Experience of
Nature: A Psychological Perspective. Cambridge
University Press, 1989. The Kaplans are generally
credited for the now widely-used expression “
20. James, W. Principles of Psychology, Vol 1. 1890,
ence has explained how attention
is not a matter of will, and especially not a matter of instantaneous
choice. Much more is now known
about the mix of voluntary and
involuntary attention, about alertness or orientation beside execution, about engagement and flow,
and about the meditative remembering of different body states.
Attention is no mere spotlight. You
cannot choose what you notice at
the moment. But you can alter your
habits. Much more is now known
about the importance of adaptive learning. The more that those
habits involve fascination with
some aspects of the world instead
of entertainment by tuning out,
the less empty overconsumption
or casual attention theft you may
suffer. Sensibilities to surroundings
don’t involve just roses, but also
rooms, streets, and neighborhoods.
Without those, you would be only
more overloaded; there would be
nothing left but your screens. It is
worth remembering that the environment isn’t simply someplace
else in a pristine state, devoid of
technology; it is all around you. It is
slowly being augmented, with good
design and bad. This seems worth
your attention. Let’s hope the temporary inconvenience of this essay
has been so too.
1. To consider attention itself, and especially attention to surroundings, I have long been mining
the literature, as an amateur but in a persistent
and organized way, and with the benefit of excellent research library databases that complement
the open Net. A feature article such as this one
simultaneously increases the need to make generalizations and decreases the space to cite their
very many origins. Please accept a disclaimer
that I do know where so many of these ideas have
come from, and only their juxtaposition and editorial synthesis is my own. For more detail, see my
forthcoming Ambient Commons (Spring 2013, MI T
Press). For these few endnotes here, please accept
a limited number in abbreviated form.
2. Simon, H. Designing organizations for an infor-mation-rich world. In Computers, Communication,
and the Public Interest. Martin Greenberger, ed.
Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1971.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Malcolm McCullough teaches
architecture at Taubman College,
the University of Michigan. He has
recently completed a book on
which this essay is based:
Ambient Commons–Attention in the
Age of Embodied Information (forthcoming, MIT
Press, Spring 2013). He is also the author of Digital
Ground (2004) and Abstracting Craft (1996), two
other books on design and embodiment that have
been widely read in the interaction design discipline.
November + December 2012
© 2012 ACM 1072-5520/12/11 $15.00