Exploring Ambient Awareness


Ambient Awareness
Photo from NYTimes Article by Clive Thompson

While David Carr’s The Shallows and Clive Thompson’s Smarter Than You Think are two different sides of a multifaceted discourse, I found myself more often agreeing with Thompson’s arguments. Whereas Carr inserts some anecdote or empirical research, but then often fails to expound upon its connection to his purpose, Thompson immediately responds to my questions. It was like a conversation where he anticipated my questions. Well, almost all of them. I am going to separate this post by two categories: what was comforting and what confounding.

Comforting: Technology is making us more collaborative, therefore smarter. Thompson quotes one of his interviewees (I cannot remember which at the moment) when he states that what we can do together is exponentially greater than what we can do alone. I think this connects directly to Vygotsky’s scaffolding. It isn’t necessarily what the child can do alone that matters, but what he can do with others. The purpose of scaffolding is to offer developmentally appropriate help, and then gradually release the scaffolds so the student can perform the task on their own, but then we release students into the world where they will need to work together again, and rely on each other. Thinking that technology can help students do these at the same time is comforting.

Confounding: One area that fell short for me was Thompson’s explanation on “ambient awareness.” I had not heard this term before, and maybe I need to go back and reread this section. His comparison to people who post pictures of what they eat throughout the day versus train operators in a control room thinking out loud in order to manage an entire system seem to be very different, and not at all the same in concept. In this chapter, Thompson is talking about the trains in London and how they think aloud in order to coordinate staff in control rooms.  This is called “ambient broadcasting” “By thinking out loud, the controller “renders visible to his colleagues the course of reasoning involved in making particular changes” (p. 213). But this thinking out loud has a purpose. Then he applies this “talking-aloud-to-the-room strategy” to surgical teams, newsrooms, airport luggage-control rooms, and financial-industry teams. All of these occupations where ambient broadcasting is taking place have purpose, a significant purpose, for the broadcasting. I definitely want my surgeon to be broadcasting what he is doing so the other members of his team are acting in cohesion with his direction. I am not convinced that posting pictures of what I eat throughout the day is the same thing. I think the idea is interesting where we can tell someone’s mood through Facebook and the like, but comparing the two leaves out the important factor of significance. After reading this section, I kept asking, (just like Thompson himself asks) “Who cares?”


Don’t judge me.

Full disclosure: I have blocked people from my Facebook feed, and even unfriended one, who post pictures of their meals. It does not help me better understand a friend who can cook all day pork loin chili, while I am sitting here eating a chicken pot pie because I am too busy to cook. This does not interest me. (But I am willing to be convinced otherwise.) I wonder what I would do if I were in a control room in London and did not necessarily care what the other controllers were doing? Would I quit that job? (Unfriend them in the workplace?) Put headphones in so I didn’t have to hear them? I guess a good thing about Facebook is I can control how ambient aware I am. When I challenge the purpose and think on the triviality of food posts, Thompson responds. He responds by saying that technology has not necessarily caused us to be more trivial, it’s been there all along. He states, “I doubt the ambient broadcasting universe is making people more trivial. What it’s doing is revealing how trivial we’ve been all along, because it’s making conversation visible” (p. 222). But is this in a sense making us proud of triviality by broadcasting it? (I am leaning on that triviality is a relative term- it depends to whom I am speaking). I am hoping that my readers can offer some alternative perspectives here.

My longer discussion question: In what ways do you have or use “ambient awareness” in your professional life?


9 thoughts on “Exploring Ambient Awareness

  1. I think that ambient awareness is a key aspect of classroom practice, although I’d never thought of it that way before reading your question. As teachers move through the different aspects of an in-person class, from discussion to group work to writing on the board, we must be constantly aware of the students around us. Do they seem engaged? Does anyone look confused? Is everyone getting a chance to participate? Do they seem to be understanding the material? Is the kid in the back corner texting again?

    To me, this is one of the most important roles of the teacher: using that ambient awareness to tailor what we do in class. I’m wondering how ambient awareness works in an online class, though. Do teachers have to pay better attention to the nuances of students’ typed communication? What do they lose by not being able to observe facial expressions, body language, and gestures?

    Really interesting question.

    • Thank you for responding, Katie! I agree with you that in class we need to have ambient awareness of what is happening around us. I suppose I never thought of it as ambient awareness. I have heard it be called “with-it-ness” in education, although I am conflicted with that term because it implies an inherent skill that cannot necessarily be learned. (Either you have it or you don’t.) I wonder how this can be taught to pre-service teachers. The way Thompson phrases it seems to make more sense than simple awareness.

  2. Before I answer your prompt question, I have a friendly rebuttal about posting pictures of food. Thompson talks about that with posts and social media that those innocuous posts don’t have universal importance, they have importance to the people who find them important. You may not like the food posts; but I am a bit of a crazed foodie and so love when people talk about trials and errors in cooking or talk about what they made. There is someone who even has a book in which he cataloged everything he ate/drank for 365 days. The week were he had the flu was composed of soup and soft squishy things. His birthday was marked by cake and other things. In that way, the food became part of his life-text and part of what made up his day-to-day memories. Those foods triggered memories for him about what was happening at that time. So, I’m not going to persuade you to like people for posting about food, but for some people those posts have meaning. Ambient awareness doesn’t argue that everything has meaning; it argues that to the people in that discourse community, there is potential meaning. 🙂

    In thinking about ambient awareness in class I think about this one group in one of my sections that is a bit of a step behind. They take longer than their classmates to get ideas organized and to catch each other up. However, once they get going, they produce really great work. For them, they are using each other to catch themselves up. If they didn’t have group work and a chance to find like-paced people, I think they would just disappear into the backdrop.

    • Katie, thanks for your reply. I think this is why I am not the intended audience for these types of posts. But this highlights the challenge in crafting posts, of any kind, to appeal to a wide audience, if that indeed is the poster’s intent. I am constantly wondering if my postings are about me, or more about considering my audience. I wonder what people think of pictures and videos of my son, which I post for relatives for relatives to see him grow.

  3. At my work place (as I’m sure many others), I receive a wealth of emails on a daily basis. Sifting through all of these for meaning beyond the menial is something that involves ambient awareness I think.

    Overall, however, the concept is somewhat of a bother to me as I described in a reply to Ashanka’s post earlier tonight. (Found here: http://ashankakumari.wordpress.com/2014/03/16/smarter-than-you-think/#comments)

    But in short, I feel an obligation to amass this sort of intuition for others based on their online social selves. Not being able to take all of this information in leaves me feeling like somewhat of a socially inconsiderate failure.

  4. Huh, you’d probably dislike my Facebook at times (I post pictures of things I cook almost once a week).

    In terms of your question, my first thought was exactly what I was doing that kept me from reading everyone’s blogs for the last three hours as I originally planned to do when I got home: emailing and dealing with logistical things for my RA-ship and other assistant University job. I am constantly sending short emails to the people I work for/regularly report to with simple “status updates” of things like “called X person and will get to the next task after lunch!” just to keep whoever up to date with the short tasks I am given. I like to think of that as involving a lot of ambient awareness in terms of the types of emails I get in response to these status updates I send throughout each day. Sometimes it’s hard to determine how urgent a task needs to be and prioritize things through an email unless it is explicitly stated “I need this by 3 p.m. today. Can you do that?” And even then, I don’t always know how to respond when I can’t make that deadline. Hope this makes some sense.

    • It makes much sense! I think what I meant to include in my post is a little context. I think ambient awareness is incredibly important and real, but I think how we interpret small, innocuous posts means everything. I should have stated this earlier. There are many short status updates that are valuable to my day-to-day activities, I was just using the food- thing as an example to demonstrate that I think Thompson could have taken this argument a little further and included more discussion to its integration in schools, which he seems to spend some time discussing. I repay like how Katie McWain framed ambient awareness in the classroom– this has given me more perspective, and perhaps a better idea of how to articulate my argument, too.

  5. The ambient awareness that Thompson talks about is a tricky thing for to work with for teachers. I’m sure my district is not the only one that discourages teachers from having online connections with their students, and most teachers I know do not connect with their students on Facebook, but those that do are masterful with their connections. Through Twitter and Facebook, they are the ones that are more aware of student patterns, attitudes, and rumors. They are the ones that catch the online shenanigans of students who start inappropriate comment chains or even online threats. Officially, the district doesn’t want teachers to be Facebook friends with their students, but a lot of teachers can be the 24/7 teacher that can be more aware of what students are talking about and educate students on online etiquette and such.

  6. Interesting perspective! I waver on my position of online connections with students. Currently my student aides and I follow each other on Twitter. I do this in case I need to get a quick message to my sub, because I know the notifications go straight to their phones. I think districts err on the side of caution because they weigh the risks and benefits of online connections with students, and the risk of liability carries more weight. My district does not have an official policy, but definitely cautions us. However, we use Twitter and Facebook a lot to communicate with students and parents. Our school alone has used Twitter to boost morale and increase recognition of student successes in all activities (academic and athletic). I think my following only a handful of students and the school and district accounts has definitely increased my ambient awareness of the happenings in school. I can definitely tell the mood of the building based on a few tweets, which has been really helpful for me as a teacher to anticipate any questions and intercept inaccuracies. Great thoughts, Caleb!

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