Almost all of us have those experiences. The ones where we “love the ambience” – of a restaurant, someone’s home, or even a park, a beach or a vacation spot. The way a place makes us feel is significant to us. But the word ambience has a more important origin. It hails from the Latin verb ambire, meaning “to go around.” It meant more of something that encircled something else. It was a verb, after all. In its current usage, it is a noun when it is used as ambience. It is an adjective when used as ambient, as I will here – ambient light, or ambient sound. There is a whole career in which someone chooses the music to be played at a restaurant – the ambient music for your dining experience. Just the right song list for the evening.
But I’m thinking not just of music or lighting. I’m going more along the lines of the whole realm of other things that impact our daily lives. Because, you see, we have infiltrated our living with ambient computing – the ability to access and harness computing power is truly all around us, all the time. Not all that long ago, say right around 200, even, if you needed a bit of information but couldn’t recall it, you jotted it down – on your Palm Pilot, no less, and looked it up on your handy home computer when you could get to Google or a then-new Wikipedia article. Now, though, information is – quite literally – in the air. Peter Morville writes in his recent book, “Ambient Findability, ” about how to filter through the rampant deluge of instant information to get to what we actually need. Morville actually takes into consideration the evolutionary path on this journey – and that’s no small task. Is findability as essential as we think? Well, I’d argue that if information is our new ambience, then yes. Finding our way through it is a key element.
In computing (and here is where the intersection of my writing and my technology comes in – why I am interested in this whole word thing), there is the great concept of “calm technology.” The aim of calm technology is to reduce the information overload, or the ambient noise experienced by the brain so that the user can decide where to focus his or her attention so as to get at the most important or useful information. In my job, this means keeping pages user-centered, clean, and focused and free of things that you see elsewhere on the internet, like pop-ups and flashy distractions. While I do not want my material to be boring, since that is a distraction in itself, I likewise do not want there to be dancing monkeys in the corner of the screen. Dancing monkeys do not represent calm technology. Crisp, easy-to-access writing does.
For technical writing, the sense of calm comes from ease of use, from that ambient findability I mentioned before. Think of a meeting with your supervisor where only he or she knows the agenda to be discussed – you, as the invited attendee, feel very uncomfortable (not calm). But once the agenda is published and you know that the topics are clear and nonthreatening, you feel at ease (calm). The same works with technology. In technical prose, if the topics are clear and easy to access, the environment is calm. It’s a good ambience.
A video conference or a live teaching tool in user training can likewise be calm if it’s done properly. In our organization, we use monthly customer demos not just to show the work we’ve done, but to preview what we are working on, to sometimes lift the curtain on what’s to come – to create that calm ambience. It’s a good move. With all customer interactions, it’s just like that meeting with the boss – if the information is clear and accessible, the ambience is great. The metaphor works whether it’s tech or not, but let me bring it back around to specifically technology.
Calm technology, if we are lucky, pervades not just technical writing, but our work, lives, and homes. For instance, the calm technology that I have here on my desk includes two monitors. I use my laptop monitor for smaller things that perhaps don’t need my full attention – my email registers there, and my skype screen, for example. I do my editing (like this blog) and my reviewing of documentation panels for my job, so that I can compare draft and final versions side-by-side. At home, I use a wink app to make life a
whole lot simpler, from turning on and dimming lights to locking and unlocking doors. I integrate an Amazon Echo and soon I’ll order an Echo dot to simplify that even more. Learning, interacting with occupant behavior – all calming technologies. They make my space feel better, run more smoothly, interact with my world a little more easily. That’s the idea behind ambient computing, if we really reclaim the word.
Now, if only I could get these things to go to my early morning yoga class for me?