Ambient Commons

Ambient Commons

Attention in the Age of Embodied Information

By Malcolm McCullough

On rediscovering surroundings when information goes everywhere.





On rediscovering surroundings when information goes everywhere.

The world is filling with ever more kinds of media, in ever more contexts and formats. Glowing rectangles have become part of the scene; screens, large and small, appear everywhere. Physical locations are increasingly tagged and digitally augmented. Amid this flood, your attention practices matter more than ever. You might not be able to tune this world out. So it is worth remembering that underneath all these augmentations and data flows, fixed forms persist, and that to notice them can improve other sensibilities. In Ambient Commons, Malcolm McCullough explores the workings of attention through a rediscovery of surroundings.

McCullough describes what he calls the Ambient: an increasing tendency to perceive information superabundance whole, where individual signals matter less and at least some mediation assumes inhabitable form. He explores how the fixed forms of architecture and the city play a cognitive role in the flow of ambient information. As a persistently inhabited world, can the Ambient be understood as a shared cultural resource, to be socially curated, voluntarily limited, and self-governed as if a commons? Ambient Commons invites you to look past current obsessions with smart phones to rethink attention itself, to care for more situated, often inescapable forms of information.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262018807 368 pp. | 5.375 in x 8 in 58 b&w illus.


$21.95 T ISBN: 9780262528399 368 pp. | 5.375 in x 8 in 58 b&w illus.


  • Ambient Commons is quiet, patient and profound; through 12 pithy chapters, it asks us to ponder information contexts.

    Times Higher Education

  • Ambient Commons sizzles with provocative ideas: attention theft, right to undisrupted attention, peak distraction. It's a call for responsible urbanism.... Given the recent hype about the rise of the 'smart city'—courtesy of large technology companies pitching solutions to innovaton-hungry mayors—McCullough's advocacy of technologically mediated but humane urbanism is timely.

    Evgeny Morozov

    The New Yorker

  • The book is both a delight to read and a call to action in two ways. Civilized human beings need to disengage from their glowing rectangles and appreciate the world around us, and design professionals need to pay attention to the information content of our environment.

    User Experience Magazine


  • Malcolm McCullough conducts a deep and broad exploration into a territory that was once imaginary, but is now part of everyday life. The latest news and disinfotainment is available on high-definition, stadium-sized screens on public buildings and on handheld gizmos that know where you are and who you are and that broadcast as well as receive. Ambient Commons is a call to become more mindful about the way our attention encounters the environment and about the way environments influence attention—and a sourcebook for those who want to take more control of the process.

    Howard Rheingold

    author of Net Smart, Tools for Thought, The Virtual Community, and Smart Mobs

  • Malcolm McCullough's book is to information what Central Park is to Manhattan—a place of reflection and circumspection that reveals helpfully the contours of the world we have constructed and hopefully an outline of the world we should build, the ambient commons.

    Albert Borgmann

    author of Real American Ethics and Holding On to Reality

  • Ambient Commons is a timely wake-up call and a hugely valuable guidebook to the new post-'digital' landscape of contemporary urban culture. McCullough demonstrates how important it is that we understand technology as culture, and that it is worthy of philosophical inquiry. He conveys these complex ideas so that they feel accessible, yet are rigorously researched and instantly appealing. It is also, unlike most texts that pivot around technology, beautifully written.

    Dan Hill