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Digital Ground

By Andrew Lovett-Barron
Published in Reading
November 15, 2021
2 min read

This is a long time favourite book of mine and one that I often return to for inspiration and context. It’s also one of those books that’s been core to my understanding of design and materialism.

Digital Ground is a media theory, design, and architecture book that approaches the question of ubiquitous computing (which sounds almost quaint now, though I suspect it’ll loop back around) from the angle of an architect and theorist. As a young designer new to the craft and coming from a social sciences education, it made for a pretty compelling argument: that while technology and the network create for a ubiquity of access when it comes to information; interaction and experience are still situated things. Interactions with technology are bound to a place, and our experiences with tech are likewise spacially situated.

This seems a bit obvious until you dig into the way that digital products and services are designed, and how their underlying business models are looking to strip place from the experience, in favour of a more homogenized and controllable exchange with users and customers. McCullough, like others working in this space, maps some of the ways that our experiences with designed and natural spaces are (at least in theory) inviolate from ubiquitous computing, but rather simply a film or filter overtop.

I’m not sure I totally agree with that assessment now. I think we’ve seen that networked technologies and their accompanying business models have been a lot more pernicious than many of us have thought: including when it comes to how we engage with space and others. Public spaces and liminal third spaces have become somewhat choked with different transit services that undermine existing uses (bike lanes and electric scooters being the most prominent example here), many environments have become less accessible through access control and surveillance, and short term rental spaces like WeWork and Airbnb have created a globally homogeneous aesthetic and experience, which allows one to occupy many geographically different spaces while existing in one consistent cultural space.

Anyway, I’m due for a reread of this book (and his more recent Ambient Commons, which I embarrassingly yet have to read) given how the past few years have shaped up. It’s probably not as dire as all that, or maybe it’s more so. I do know that my optimism when I entered into design has shifted considerably though, frankly towards those spaces that are less defined, less homogenous, and perhaps less connected.

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Andrew Lovett-Barron

Software Designer and Researcher

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