7 Types of Digital Ambiguity

I want to pick up on a discussion I started in February of this year that explored my attachment to the idea of ambiguity in the context of ambient literature.

It’s clear that the category of the ambient has lack of definition, a certain fuzziness as a key quality: flat fields where figure and ground merge and distinctions are dissolved. I want to make a move here from this lack of definition – understood as either aesthetic advantage or critical problem – from fuzziness to ambiguity, where ambiguity is understood as an aesthetic tactic in interaction: a central quality of the appeal of what we propose as the new field of ambient literature experiences.

The ambient is here is far from a retreat from discursive production, it’s a deliberate creative strategy of ambiguity drawing readers/ listeners users into an interaction and awareness of the systems that they inhabit and co constitute – political, cultural, ecological and technological. These encounters might well involve us in getting a bit lost, not being sure about what’s happening or where we’re going but trusting, being “held” by the form of the work.

Ambiguity is not a mode of experience that one might normally associate or want from computing experiences; clearly computers present as rational machines, subject to the laws of maths and physics and in truth I don’t want an ambiguous experience when I fire up my email system or spreadsheet in the morning.

But when it comes to art and culture the situation is different. And here is hard to resist starting with William Empson’s famous excavation of ambiguity as a key to literary experience. Elucidating the meanings evoked in a line from a Shakespeare sonnet he writes,

… these reasons and many more relating the simile to its place in the sonnet, must all combine to give the line its beauty, and there is a sort of ambiguity in not knowing which of them to hold most clearly in mind. Clearly this is involved in all such richness and heightening of effect, and the machinations of ambiguity are among the very roots of poetry. (3. 1930/ 2004).

Empson’s account of ambiguity underlines the necessity of interpretative effort leading not to reducible or translatable sense but to the absolute necessity for contradiction, compression and associative suggestion in the literary work of art.

Over the past fifteen years I have undertaken and enjoyed quite a lot of creative production using contextual awareness, location and interaction. And I’ve begun to formulate my own types of ambiguity that I think are essential machinations of the new poetics of ambient literature.

1. Ambiguous affect in the milliseconds of prehension. By this I mean the gap between input and output in our own perceptual systems especially heightened in an interaction between a user and an ambiguous interface. This is the feeling of being a bit lost. It can easily topple into frustration (especially when the tech crashes) but when it works the “literary” is produced in this moment as an event at the overlap between site systems, device systems, the text system and our own perceptual systems. Affective responses arise in the sense of indeterminacy that characterizes the click, walk, listen, read, swipe interfacing that we do in an ambient literature experience.

2. The ambiguous interface. Although the object of HCI and UX is to make the interface transparent, clear and not confusing, part of my excitement and pleasure in any interactive object is figuring it out, wondering if I’m doing it right, is it working properly? Is this what I’m supposed to do? I used to think this was a frustrating design inadequacy but now it seems to constitute an important quality of the whole experience. The use of ambiguity in interface design has already been developed as a unique strand of HCI (Gaver W Beaver J & Benford S 2003) in which they elaborate methods for producing the effects of ambiguity in order to

…be intriguing, mysterious, and delightful. By impelling people to interpret situations for themselves, it encourages them to start grappling conceptually with systems and their contexts, and thus to establish deeper and more personal relations with the meanings offered by those systems.

These insights were later developed by Phoebe Sengers & Bill Gaver in a 2006 paper arguing for Empsonian like multiple interpretations, by Matthew Chalmers ideas about “seamful” rather than seamless design before resurfacing more recently in Benford & Giannachi’s paper Uncomfortable Interactions at CHI 2012. So there is a slight but significant HCI tradition that values lack of reductivist clarity in order to produce specific kinds of engagement.

3. Ambiguous sensing. The sensor systems that trigger content are not 100% prompt or accurate, they are more atmospheric than that. GPS in the early days of mobile media didn’t feel like a precise system. Back then, accuracy was around a 5 metre diameter zone. This meant that creators often managed the user experience through a series of fades and mixes between zones; this mixology quickly learnt to work hand in hand with an audio base level, a sound bed that specific instances of content faded in and out of. Finally these instances and the “sound bed” learnt to balance themselves with or against the ambient sound of the actual environments where the work could potentially be experienced. So the emergency siren, overhead plane, or crunch of a gravel path all start to appear in locative sound works. So the ambienceof such works consisted in a rather subtle art of the mix in which real world sounds, cross fades and audio balancing accompanied the user through fuzzily defined and not always obvious zones. Such works produce what I can only call ambient experiences where the user is drifted through a sonic space that works with the world surrounding us but doesn’t map it, pin it or even necessarily navigate it.

4. Ambiguous mappings. Following on from above the experience of ambient literature works may often — but not always — involve moving or walking through spaces and places. This works may give you a strict map (like a heritage app — observe on the right etc.) or they may give you a more ambiguous set of instructions e.g. Blast Theory’s piece Rider Spoke in which participants are given a bicycle with a pair of headphones and a GPS device. The soundtrack invites riders to find a special place in the city, asks us to decide who we want to be in this experience, to rename ourselves. We are then prompted to recall memories, “Remember a time where you last held hands,” go there, record and locate a memory for other riders to discover. “Cycling through the streets your focus is outward, looking for good places to hide, speculating about the hiding places of others, becoming completely immersed into this overlaid world as the voices of strangers draw you into a new and unknown place.” Every good walk involves getting a little bit lost.

5. Ambiguous embodiment. The interface mappings above produce a situated experience of being connected to other places and experiences. This is a literary endeavour but it also spatializes and embodies literary experience. The body is here and the text knows where the reader’s body is and can use that environment to invite the reader to be elsewhere. Being elsewhere is the perpetual offer of theatre, film, reading and screen experience: this offer (like VR) asks us to leave our actual bodies behind, the position of our actual bodies is irrelevant. But in the case of Ambient Lit the position of the body is the heart of the practice. I am here, right now, reading or listening in this place but am also reading or listening to someone else who is also in this here and in this right now. My body is here, fully sentient and aware of its surroundings but the text is augmenting it (especially through the intimacy of headphone experiences) and engaging it with other presences in this here and now.

6. The Ambiguity of Exploration. To explore is to be uncertain. Certain art works require exploration, they require active interaction, walking, clicking, navigating. In eye tracking studies of the way we look at visual art neuroscientists have started to show that in a figurative work most people’s eyes conform to some predictable patterns of scanning, eyes face, body foreground and background. But in abstract art there is a much wider variation, enormous in fact, (though composition and form really do direct attention too (Quiroga & Pedreira 2011). Which raises the question of what we are doing when we look at abstract art, as our yes scan over a canvas we might be said to be having an experience of our own individual perceptual systems, experiencing our own sense making apparatus — experiencing our selves in fact. I think something similar is happening for me when I am called upon to explore an interactive art work in this way — I am asked to put some of myself into the interaction, to step forward into an unknown and discover how it feels.

7. The ambiguous language of ambience. What we have found in our preliminary look is that the languages of ambience tend toward the contingent, the conditional and the subjunctive. You may want to, you might, you could, perhaps: the language linking the internal affective world and the external world of reality is tentative and necessarily reflects and produces the ambiguity of the whole enterprise.

— Jon Dovey



Gaver, William W., Jacob Beaver, and Steve Benford. 2003. “Ambiguity as a Resource for Design.” In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 233–40. ACM. doi:10.1145/642611.642653.

Benford, Steve, Chris Greenhalgh, Gabriella Giannachi, Brendan Walker, Joe Marshall, and Tom Rodden. 2012. “Uncomfortable Interactions.” In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 2005–14. CHI ’12. New York, NY, USA: ACM. doi:10.1145/2207676.2208347.

Chalmers, Matthew, and Areti Galani. 2004. “Seamful Interweaving: Heterogeneity in the Theory and Design of Interactive Systems.” In Proceedings of the 5th Conference on Designing Interactive Systems: Processes, Practices, Methods, and Techniques, 243–52. DIS ’04. New York, NY, USA: ACM. doi:10.1145/1013115.1013149.

Quiroga, Rodrigo Quian, and Carlos Pedreira. 2011. “How Do We See Art: An Eye-Tracker Study.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 5. Frontiers Media SA: 98. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/pmc3170918/.

Sengers, Phoebe, and Bill Gaver. 2006. “Staying Open to Interpretation: Engaging Multiple Meanings in Design and Evaluation.” In Proceedings of the 6th Conference on Designing Interactive Systems, 99–108. DIS ’06. ACM. doi:10.1145/1142405.1142422.


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