Ambient Awareness

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Definition

The idea of being ‘ambiently aware’ of another’s actions, thoughts and experiences without having to be near them physically, or requesting such information. Strong social networks provide this type of ambient awareness.

“Social scientists have a name for this sort of incessant online contact. They call it “ambient awareness”. It is, they say, very much like being physically near someone and picking up on his mood through the little things he does — body language, signs, stray comments — out of the corner of your eye. Facebook is no longer alone in offering this sort of interaction online” (New York Times Magazine, I’m so Digitally Close to You), the article points out, and then goes on to mention that this is due to the rise in microblogging services that are available and frequently used, such as Twitter. Many Twitter clients, for instance, have notification settings that provide pop-ups that pop over windows on a computer screen, allowing a tiny window into the lives of others. Once can sit at an office computer all day and never feel disconnected from friends, because they are being let in on the lives and happening of others bit by bit, in tiny digestible pieces, over the course of the day.

And unlike mailing letters with long updates or meeting friends in person to “catch up”, one can easily feel as if they’re being caught up at every moment by receiving these updates or browsing a stream of text or reporting by those they know. These messages aren’t going to anyone in particular, and they can easily be ignored by those who see them, but this one to many broadcast capability. But, as Iggy wrote on [1] “Ambient awareness of useless information is still useless” (Sep 8th, 2008 @ 6:33am).

This is the chief concern of those who create rapidly accessed and changing information technologies. Facebook’s algorithm strives to keep information displayed relevant, and, if not relevant, interesting enough to browse through and click on. Twitter basically sets new users as default ‘socially opted out’ until they gather content to follow. When they encounter something they don’t like, they’re free to drop them.

In Ambient awareness, lifestreams and personal storytelling. Will it change my relation to You? Lisbeth Klastrup has this to say about Ambient Intimacy, especially with regard to Clive Thompson’s article in the NYTimes Magazine. “Will it continue like this?”, she asks. “At the heart of all these speculations about what we do this and what is happening to our social sphere as we do it, the most interesting question linked to these current “trends” in the development of personal storytelling (as I like to call it) is of course: will it continue? Will microblogging and mobile posting about your own life and tracking other people’s lifestreams (those of real friends, as well as “weak tie” acquaintances and remote colleagues) become of an integral part of the future digital native’s “social being in the world”? Will we develop mental capacities and methods to handle this constant ambient awareness of other people’s lives? - Or is it a “bubble” that will eventually burst, and return us to a way of living where we keep personal communication about ourselves at a minimum and mostly focus on those near and dear to us, whether it be in digital or analogue mode?” [2].

The mundanity of this informational exchange might seem off-putting at first. Indeed, that’s what drove so many away from Twitter in the first place, but these pieces of information build up over time Alex Soojung-Kim Pang writes that “Each little update — each individual bit of social information — is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting. This was never before possible, because in the real world, no friend would bother to call you up and detail the sandwiches she was eating. The ambient information becomes like “a type of E.S.P.,” as Haley described it to me, an invisible dimension floating over everyday life....” About the end of cyberspace.

The point is that we live in lives whose ability to spend “complete, uninterrupted time” is truncated by the multiplicity of attention that living in Simultaneous Time brings. In a way, these micro updates are small enough to be digestible. Small enough to fit into the corners of our days and hours and minutes. Quick enough to gather with a quick glance, and minute enough to be ignored without serious guilt. They are omnipresent and neverending, always available if one only clicks. A river of data, of which no observation is the same twice. This could also be called Ambient Intimacy.

Further Reading