Ambience is everywhere.
The ambient noise that turns cafes into workplaces, or the ambient music we listen to when we’re trying to focus. Ambient information, too: the flood of news and ideas and jokes and conversation that we never quite see, but experience constantly.
To be ambient is to be lop-sided.
Ambience is a funnel rather than a bridge; a seesaw more than a handshake.
One side makes its effort external. It produces, focuses, creates, anything from music to information to ideas. The other side’s effort is internal. It consumes, digests, it moves on.
Social media is built on ambient relationships. You post, you tweet, you share; I read, I listen, I see. Maybe we interact briefly. But I can feel closeness to you without actually having it.
To make things even more complicated, we can exist on both sides—creators and consumers of other people’s thoughts, and each other’s. But so often I see what you’re doing, you see me, but we’re never quite talking to each other.
Technology companies are obsessed with ambience.
Google has been trying to make ambient computing happen for years.
It wants ambient shopping: stores where you simply walk in, pick up stuff, and walk out. We’ve gone from replacing clerks to replacing interaction.
Brad Stone’s book The Everything Store talks a lot about how obsessed with this reality the folks there are, and how much time and effort they have put into it.
Maybe because the heart of this new sort of information ambience—that is, the lop-sidedness—is a kind of power.
Ambient noise doesn’t know who is listening. It is created by people who care about what they are doing, and is consumed by people who don’t. It’s a marriage of convenience.
But with ambient computing, that relationship changes.
You are both the creator—generating a flood of data—and the absent-minded consumer. But the computer, it hears. It acts. It is ambient only in as much as you do not notice; like ambient friendship, marrying convenience and utility against the feeling of being watched.
Ambient friendship, when it goes wrong, can feel more like stalking.
It’s no surprise that ambient computing feels like ambient surveillance.