An environmental movement around “the Ambient”

While on the trail in early November, had a chance to read a fascinating essay in The New Yorker plumbing the depths of the informational world we live in today — what smartphones and related technologies mean (or don't) and how they should be regulated (or not).

Included in the discussion was a new book the essayist Evgency Morozov much admired, Ambient Commons, which looks at information as an environment, and argues that "Information deserves its own environmentalism." (Not to protect it from us, but to protect us from being overwhelmed by nowness.) 

In the book about "the Ambient," MIT professor Michael McCullough wrote:

A quieter life takes more notice of the world, and uses technology more for curiousity and less for conquest… It stretches and extends the now, beyond the latest tweets, beyond the next business quarter, until the sense of time period you inhabit exceeds the extent of your lifetime.

Like this balance: Not blaming the technology, nor us for using it, but delving into its impact, really trying to understand it. Later in this very thoughtful essay, which – irony alert  –is freely available thanks to the Internet, the writer quotes an earlier information theorist and boredom advocate, Siegfriend Kracdauer, who saw the rationalization of private life around work as a menace, and had two antidotes in mind:

What one expects and gets from travel and dance — a liberation from earthly woes, the possibility of an aesthetic relation to organized toil — corresponds to the sort of elevation above the ephemeral and the contingent that might occur within people's existence in the relation to the eternal and the absolute…through their travels […] the shackles are burst, and they imagine that infinity itself is spreading out before them. In trains they are already on the other side, and the world in which they land is a new world for them. 

Fortunate souls. But the point being that we must choose — and act — to enter the planetary world, as opposed to living in the world of our creation. It's not a new dilemma, but our distractive tools are shinier, noisier, and bring us streams of information, as opposed to samples. Still, maybe they could help get us out into the world, too, as this competition of pics taken by cellphone users on vacation suggests.  



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  1. Kit Stolz

    Thinking about it a little, the two thinkers — past and present — quoted extensively by the essayist both call for thinking beyond the horizon of the personal and the temporal, as opposed to focusing intently on ourselves in the present moment (looking at you, Facebook).

    Does this make sense, as a way to decide what is helpful/good about digital information, and what is not? Hope so.

    December 17, 2013