Ambient Reality


People are forever buttonholing me on the street and saying, “Nick, what comes after realtime?” It’s a good question, and I happen to know the answer: Ambient Reality. Ambient Reality is the ultimate disruption, as it alters the actual fabric of the universe. We begin living in the prenow. Things happen before they happen. “Between the desire / And the spasm,” wrote T. S. Eliot, “Falls the Shadow.” In Ambient Reality, the Shadow goes away. Spasm precedes desire. In fact, it’s all spasm. We enter what I call Uninterrupted Spasm State, or USS.

In “How the Internet of Things Changes Everything,” a new and seemingly machine-written article in Foreign Affairs, two McKinsey consultants write of “the interplay” between “the most disruptive technologies of the coming decade: the mobile Internet and the Internet of Things.” The “mobile-ready Internet of Things,” as they term it, will have “a profound, widespread, and transformative impact on how we live and work.” For instance, “by combining a digital camera in a wearable device with image-recognition software, a shopper can automatically be fed comparative pricing information based on the image of a product captured by the camera.” That’s something to look forward to, but the McKinseyites are missing the big picture. They underestimate the profundity, the ubiquity, and the transformativeness of the coming disruption. In Ambient Reality, there is no such thing as “a shopper.” Indeed, the concept of “shopping” becomes anachronistic. Goods are delivered before the urge to buy them manifests itself in the conscious mind. Demand is ambient, as are pricing comparisons. They become streams in the cloud.

EBay strategist John Sheldon gets closer to the truth when he describes, in a new Wired piece, the concept of “ambient commerce”:

Imagine setting up a rule in Nike+, he says, to have the app order you a new pair of shoes after you run 300 miles. … Now consider an even more advanced scenario. A shirt has a sensor that detects moisture. And you find yourself stuck out in the rain without an umbrella. Not too many minutes after the downpour starts, a car pulls up alongside you. A courier steps out and hands you an umbrella — or possibly a rain jacket, depending on what rules you set up ahead of time for such a situation.

I ask you: Are there no bounds to the dreams of our innovators?

Comments Wired‘s Marcus Wohlsen, “Though it might be hard to believe, the logistics of delivering that umbrella are likely more complex than the math behind detecting the water.” That is indeed hard to believe.

But even these scenarios fail to capture the full power of Ambient Reality. They assume some agency is required on the part of the consumer. One has to “set up a rule” about the lifespan of one’s sneakers. One has to pre-program a choice between umbrella and rain jacket. In Ambient Reality, no such agency is required. Personal decisions are made prenow, by communications among software-infused things. The sensors in your feet and in your sneakers are in constant communication not only with each other but with the cloud. When a new pair of sneakers is required, the new pair is automatically printed on your 3-D printer at home. The style of the sneakers is chosen algorithmically based on your past behavior as well as contemporaneous neural monitoring. Choice is ambient. As for that “courier” who “steps out and hands you an umbrella” after the onset of precipitation, that’s just plain retrograde. The required consumer good will be delivered before the rain starts by an unmanned drone delivery aircraft. The idea that humans will be involved in delivery chores is ridiculous. In Ambient Reality, human effort will be restricted to self-actualization—in other words, ambient consumption. That’s the essence of USS.

I hardly need mention that, once the shower has passed, the drone will retrieve the umbrella in order to deliver it to another person facing an imminent rain event. All assets will be shared to optimize utilization. Think how rarely you use your umbrella today: that’s a sign of how broken society is.

We are on the verge, says Wohlsen, of “a utopian future in which running out of toilet paper at the wrong time will never, ever happen again.” That’s very true, but the never-run-out-of-toilet-paper utopia is actually a transitional utopia. [inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=””]In the ultimate utopia of Ambient Reality, there will be no need for toilet paper.[/inlinetweet] But I’ll leave that for a future post.

This post is an installment in Rough Type’s ongoing series “The Realtime Chronicles,” which began here. A full listing of posts can be found here.

12 thoughts on “Ambient Reality

  1. Norm

    “I ask you: Are there no bounds to the dreams of our innovators?”

    Evidently, the limit is that of anything grand or worthwhile. These are the dreams of Nietzsche’s last men.

  2. Tim

    I am reminded of Tim Slee’s story about Google the Butler. He would bring what you wished for before you wished for it. Love the post.

  3. Snottzoid

    Yes—the sardonicism. I love it!

    Why is it that the latest push of inventions includes the idea of moving humans closer to being nothing more than heat-producing, food-ingesting, and entertainment-consuming organisms. Gag me with a spoon!

  4. Daniel Cole

    Loved it.

    Of course, the capital that pulls all this off must be amazing. Not that we would know, since the drone overseers overseas must surely send it direct deposit. Or are we all getting high on our own supply, writing new apps for faster umbrella delivery?

  5. CS Clark

    I’m not sure which appeals to me more; the idea of people spending their entire lives ticking boxes on – Q. 198263876: It begins to rain, you are 15 minutes walk from your house, your sneakers have 256 miles on the clock, it’s dark and you’re wearing sunglasses. Do you a) want an umbrella b) want a raincoat c) want to tweet out a request to shelter in a nearer house … zzzzzz) want a brand-new BMW delivered to you but only if it can get there in 60 seconds – only to die at the age of 109, the second they finish answering the last question (presumablyabout the circumstances in which they would want a 1:1 scale map of the Empire) OR; the image of a drone swooping down at supersonic speeds and snatching an umbrella out of the hand of a soaking wet man who has just put it up because it has determined algorithmically that he ain’t gonna get any wetter and someone 50 yards away appears to be thinking of leaving their car.

  6. Bruce

    Reading this post, I couldn’t help wondering: would I rather be a fat, ambient-living, Wall-E blob, or marooned on the Blue Lagoon with no TP and a young Brooke Shields? Hmm..

  7. orda

    The tech asshats are going to kill us all, is how I read it. Know-it-all propellerheads combined with rapacious capitalists, a great combination.

  8. Raj Karamchedu

    Orda:The tech asshats are going to kill us all, is how I read it. Know-it-all propellerheads combined with rapacious capitalists, a great combination.

    The problem is not the propellerheads and capitalists, though they contribute to it. There is not enough focus on real-world problems that can indeed be tackled with new technologies. Unfortunately these capitalists and propellerheads are focused too much on problems of a consumer in the West, which are really non-problems. Go east and go south and you’ll find a kind of vibrancy, and a kind of hard-to-define problems (usually they both go together) that will rejuvenate any entrepreneur. In the West entrepreneurs market among themselves and to VCs and vice versa. It’s becoming a frog-in-the-well like situation. In the face of problems that are either too big to solve, or too nutty to articulate, propellerheads are saying to hell with it and are defining their own problems, and creating a vision around it, and then selling it to VCs and to the new media. The former is too happy to invest, and the latter is too immature, too young and too dumb to know any better. We are now actively in the middle of a bubble in the market for solutions looking for problems.


  9. Jun

    This level of “care” service has been existing for long long time. But it was and is mannually carried out for very few special kinds of people. Now (in the future), it will be auto carried out by non-human, and affordable to everyone of us.

    Very intriguing perspective of personalization services, Thanks!

  10. Andrei

    just imagine yourself, stuck wet under the rain, having no idea what to do since you used to an umbrella delivered to you when it’s rain, but sensor of your t-shirt is not working.

Comments are closed.