Ambient Commons

I hate to post to a blog with just one link, when I can twitter it and you can choose, but today, at the Think Tank where I am employed I was trying to tease out what we mean by
“infrastructure.” I found myself returning to the writing of Malcolm McCullough, my mentor in grad school.

I was trying to understand if street signage is hard or soft infrastructure, and it seemed to me it might be neither. It is the informational layer of the city. Without Informational infrastructure the city might be reasonably negotiated by long-time inhabitants through embodied, local and iterative knowledge, but is totally opaque to new comers. And we know there are a ton of new comers to megacities, and many of them may not speak the local language (linguistic, cultural, economic etc.)

Malcolm’s new book is called Ambeint Commons – (the chapter abstracts and a “How to use this book”) are up on his website as a .pdf


Rapid cultural shifts made necessary by planetary change generally place more value on surroundings. Ubiquitous information, once thought placeless, increasingly influences this transformation. Yet at this writing, “environmental history of information” yielded a null search on Google. Many people, particularly architects, believe that cultural outlook somehow lives in the way people dwell, and in what public places they choose to build and embellish. Fewer people see information enhancing the physical world, however. The effect more often seems like white noise, dematerialization, or escape. Where notions of a commons have applied to information, those have instead addressed intellectual property, especially where intellectual capital has been socially produced over networks. Now the move beyond the desktop into many more formats and physical contexts demands new approaches to shared resources. The genre of “urban computing” has arisen to explore this. How do the architectures of ambient information enrich urban experience, operate architectures, cultivate environmental sensibilities, or renew responsibility to some idea of a commons?

Ambient Commons is about attention in architecture. It is about information media becoming contextual, tangible, and persistent. It begins an environmental history of information. I am taking two phenomena that I see gaining currency in the rise of the “augmented city,” and exploring whether it makes sense to combine them. “Ambient” is that which surrounds but does not distract. Information is becoming ambient. Architecture is rediscovering environment and atmosphere. “Commons” is that which self-governs resource sharing, a process which political economists increasingly see complementing markets. “Information commons” has been topical since the mid 90s, but only now begins to merge with physical space. “Ambient Commons” does not exist except in a few niches of music: not in media studies, nor pervasive computing, nor urbanism. But should it?

Malcolm brings together a passion for good urbanism, complex systems thinking and IT like no one else. And I am thinking that I might better understand this whole informational infrastructure thing, and how we actively create humane augmented reality cities by intentionally designing informational infrastructure.

If you get a minute I recommend taking a look as we enter the adventures of always-on-electronically-augmented-urbanism of Bangalore, MegaCity Asia and beyond.

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