Embodiment and Ambient Thinking

From sceptical futurist Stuart Candy:

“I want to propose two umbrella terms (brutal pun intended) for ways of looking at things that I find highly interesting playmates: embodiment thinking and ambience thinking.

In embodiment thinking, crystallised elements are reopened up as distributed in space and time (a conceptual analogue of the visual technique of the exploded view). The object is at the centre. In ambience thinking, a process may be deliberately distributed to enable more organic, interactive results. The subject is at the centre. They seem to be reciprocal or complementary concepts that have in common a manifest sensitivity to the complexity of systems. In that sense they are perhaps each subsets (or offshoots) of systems thinking, and natural partners of futures thinking. Let’s consider each in a bit more detail.

Embodiment thinking looks at objects as somehow containing or condensing the processes that produced them. Hence, embodied energy is “the quantity of energy required to manufacture, and supply to the point of use, a product, material or service”. The spreading awareness and use of ideas such as the ecological footprint, and the related carbon footprint, are encouraging instances of embodiment thinking because their uptake heralds a way of perceiving the ecological impact of our choices, more holistic and nuanced than before (the rise of “products of service” is part of the same trend, I’d say). Variations of this way of seeing have been around for a while; for instance, Marx wrote in the 19th century, “all commodities are but definite measures of congealed labor-time.” To see a machine as “congealed labor” is a clear example of embodiment thinking.

Ambience thinking looks at environments and detects (or arranges) a distribution of salient elements therein. As with embodiment thinking, it takes a certain “ecological” cast of mind to see things this way. Ambient music (invented by artist Brian Eno in the mid-70s) was intended to suggest a kind of sonic environment, rather than a linear, narrative-like musical structure. In recent times, there has been a rash of similar neologisms in both commercial and academic settings: ~ intelligence~ computing~ findability, and ~ gaming. My colleague Jake Dunagan and I have been calling for the cognate notion of ambient foresight to be developed by embedding futures thinking — or the ingredients for it — in one’s informational environment.

The complementarity or overlap here is rather intriguing. Objects expressing or invoking possible scenarios (eg “artifacts from the future“) could be regarded as embodied futures thinking. But, deliberately placed so as to systematically provoke it, such objects (like information, such as forecasts) could be said to engage ambient foresight. It seems to depend whether you focus more on the “object” itself, or on the experience of the person who encounters it.”

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