As information becomes plentiful, attention becomes scarce. That truism from Herbert Simon, a pioneer of cognitive science, has many implications for us as humans in “the information age.” Advertisers also vie for our attention—and the competition is fierce. Those who want your attention are progressively filling up every nook and cranny with information. Ads, links, and notices are placed in any spec of unclaimed real estate. Remember when you first heard someone speaking to you from a little gadget attached to the gas pump? Or first saw a video explaining the advantages of a product hung on the end aisle at the supermarket? The same is true of virtual real estate, as when ads are crowded onto websites. As computing goes mobile, our outdoor attention is not only grabbed by billboards and other signage everywhere, but our mobile devices simultaneously demand our attention be directed toward tiny screens and whatever is going on in the online world.
At this point we must ask how our situational awareness (SA) is faring. Do we know what is going on around our body in the physical world? Do we notice our surroundings? Obviously, SA is essential if we are to avoid accidents such as walking in front of a vehicle or falling into a ditch. How many times have you seen a pedestrian walking, even in a busy parking lot, with eyes glued to his or her mobile phone? How many bags or cases have been snatched while the carrier’s mind was distracted with a phone call or text? Yes, SA is important for our safety, but something else is at risk as well. It is our ability to be fascinated with aspects of our surroundings.
Professor McCullough observes that, for the most part, we enjoy the superabundance of information in modern life. But perhaps we can use technological advances to better filter it. There is evidence that giving conscious attention to our situational awareness can help us. Attention is not limited to a spotlighted area, nor does it need to be effortful. Recent concepts such as “nature-deficit disorder” and ecopsychology reflect growing awareness that human mental health, indeed, human sanity, depends upon attending to our environment. Professor McCullough would argue that the built, as well as natural, environment can provide valuable structure and be restorative to our frazzled selves.
Those steeped in the academic discourse of architecture and design will find it more easily understood than the rest of us (hence the missing fifth star), but if you are looking for an intriguing challenge, you will be rewarded for your effort. When I needed a quicker intro to the whole topic, Professor McCullough recommended starting with the journal article “On Attention to Surroundings” in the November/December, 2012, issue of Interactions (published by ACM, Association for Computing Machinery), pp. 41-49. The concepts are more fully explored in Ambient Commons. The references at the end of the article and the endnotes of the book are wonderful. Prof. McCullough shows great courtesy in crediting original sources to the degree possible, even when ideas have become "common knowledge." It is also a beautifully designed book; even if I couldn’t read English, I would love this book for its visual and tactile delight, inside and out.
Disclosure: Much of this review also appears in connection with Professor McCullough's interview on The Social Network Show in August 2014: http://thesocialnetworkstation.com/the-battle-for-your-attention/ The website for the book is http://ambientcommons.org