First Monday

The effects of ambient media: What unplugging reveals about being plugged in by Jessica Roberts and Michael Koliska

An ever-increasing number of us live in a world rich in information and media that provide us with constant access to that information. Besides television, radio, newspapers, and computers, we now carry communication devices with us. Mobile devices with digital content — phones, iPods, PDAs — have become ubiquitous around the world, creating an information environment with as yet unknown consequences for the way we function and the way we think and feel. This study examines responses from students at 12 universities from 10 nations who tried to avoid all “media” for 24 hours and reflect on their experience, and considers the data in the context of ambient media in hopes of better understanding the effects of living in a world of ambient media.


Discussion and conclusion




It is no secret that most of us live in a world rich in information, surrounded by communication media that bring us that information. Besides television, radio, newspapers, and computers (desktops, laptops, netbooks, tablets), mobile devices with digital content — phones, iPods, PDAs — have become ubiquitous around the world. According to the United Nations Information and Communication Technology Division, about 6.8 billion people worldwide use cell phones and more than two billion of them were projected to use their phones to access the Internet by the end of 2013 (International Telecommunication Union, 2013). A Pew survey in April 2012 found that 88 percent of adults in the U.S. own a cell phone, 55 percent use their cell phone to access the Internet, and 45 percent have smart phones (Smith, 2012). We are increasingly living in a world in which the majority of people carry devices that allow for constant access to the Internet. While interest grows in research about the effect of constant availability of information on the way we function, think, and feel, there remains much we do not know.

Studies in computer science have long examined “awareness systems” — technologies that allow users to effortlessly maintain knowledge of the activities and whereabouts of other users in their system. However, most studies of such awareness systems examine how participants use new and possible future systems, respond to being connected, or feel after using new systems. These studies have not examined what we call “ambient media” — the already extant world of information constantly and pervasively accessible through the various devices we currently use, which serve as awareness systems. Nor do they consider how the use of those awareness systems may be affecting users. While it would be exceedingly complicated, if not impossible, to conduct an experiment in which subjects were introduced for the first time to ambient media, this study seeks to understand the effects of ambient media by examining responses from students attempting to avoid ambient media. Students at 12 universities from 10 nations were asked to avoid any and all media for 24 hours and write about the experience. We analyze those responses in the context of what previous studies indicate about ambient media, in an attempt to better understand the effects of living in a world of ambient media, as revealed by students’ responses to trying to live media–free for 24 hours. While these students are somewhat exceptional in that they are tech–savvy and privileged enough to own digital devices, they are in many ways ideal subjects because they are most immersed in ambient media, and therefore can most effectively demonstrate the effects of its removal.

Ambient media

Ambient media is the term we use to describe the information–rich environment made available through the combination of mass media, new media technology, and mobile devices commonly in use in adult populations in the developed world (and increasingly in the developing world as well). It is an environment created by the networks, Web sites, and applications that allow us to share information, the mobile devices that make access to that information constantly and instantly available, and the proliferation of communication media in public spaces, work places, and homes. It is made up of ubiquitous yet invisible, or seamlessly integrated, media technology that provide access to the vast amounts of information available online, particularly information about social networks. This concept draws on research of awareness systems, which are technologies that provide individuals with the tools to maintain awareness of each others’ activities (Aarts, 2004; Chalmers, 2002; Markopoulos, 2009); domestication, which describes the adoption and incorporation of technology into the everyday life (Silverstone and Hirsch, 1992); and, remediation, which is the erasing of the perception of technology even as it multiplies (Bolter and Gruisin, 1999). We prefer “ambient media” to existing terms such as ambient information or ambient intelligence because it indicates the degree to which this information is mediated and arrives through various media of communication — devices with which users often develop strong connections. We include in this category all content delivered through media devices, whether “push” or “pull” content, personal communication or public information, or mobile device or public display. Whether an individual seeks out information, receives news updates about a public figure or event because of personal interest, or seeks out or is contacted by a friend through a social network, this all contributes to the world of information. We recognize that there are differences between these modes and media of interacting, as well public information such as news, and personal information of the kind shared through social networks. However, ambient media is meant to describe the mediated information of all kinds that is constantly available and surrounds us at all times to create a world of constant awareness about events and people not co–located with the user. Simultaneously, ambient media is embedded so deeply into the everyday experience that its existence is becoming invisible to the user.

Awareness systems

Chalmers (2002) defines awareness as “the ongoing interpretation of representations i.e., of human activity and of artefacts” [1]. Awareness systems, and the attempt to create technologies that are unobtrusively integrated in people’s lives while providing information about activities of others, have been the subject of many computer science studies. Many early studies of awareness systems were related to computer–supported cooperative work and how technology could be used to allow workers in geographically distant locations to work cooperatively. However, as Schmidt (2002) points out, awareness can be defined in a variety of ways, and can be further qualified by a number of adjectives: general awareness, collaboration awareness, peripheral awareness, background awareness, passive awareness, reciprocal awareness, mutual awareness, workspace awareness. Schmidt (2002) concludes, “the term ‘awareness’ does not denote a set of related practices” [2]. Instead, Schmidt defines awareness as “awareness of the social context and is seen as something that engenders ‘informal interactions’ and ‘a shared culture’” [3].

Social presence is a closely related concept often discussed in studies about awareness. Short, et al. (1976) introduced social presence theory as a way to measure the degree of salience of another person, or the sense of being with someone, in an interaction through communication media. Research on awareness systems often cites social presence as a sense of ‘being together’ enabled through mediated communication, which can be achieved “through providing peripheral awareness of a remote individual or a group” [4]. Social presence is distinct from awareness in that Short, et al. were interested in a medium’s ability to provide the user with the sense of being with another person, whereas awareness relates to knowing about the presence of others and maintaining knowledge of the current social context. In the latter case, feeling as if others are physically present is not necessary. Huijnen, et al. (2004) found that it was possible to experience a higher degree of social presence through peripheral awareness systems, which allow users to maintain awareness of another person’s activities without feeling that the person is there.

Markopoulos, et al. (2009) define awareness systems as computer–mediated communication systems “intended to help people construct and maintain awareness of each others’ activities, context or status, even when the participants are not co–located” or “systems helping people to effortlessly maintain awareness of each other’s whereabouts and activities” (Markopoulos, 2003). For awareness systems to be effective, Markopoulos (2009) suggests that they “move beyond communicating data to providing information: awareness information that is meaningful in the context of some joint activity or social relationship” and that users are able to “consume, recruit and utilize awareness information in the course of other activities they engage in” [5].

The always–on awareness system has two parts: the media–sharing platforms or online networks that allow users to share their status frequently; and the devices that allow users to access that information anytime from anywhere. Adriana de Souza e Silva (2006) claims that mobile devices promote the blurring of borders between physical and digital spaces: “The emergence of mobile technology devices has contributed to the possibility of being always connected to digital spaces. It has become possible to literally ‘carry’ the Internet wherever we go, feeling as though we are everywhere at the same time” [6]. Rettie (2003) cites Townsend [7] in suggesting that a mobile is “a pacifier for adults — it makes you feel connected, that you are not alone in the world.” The devices themselves become very important to users, a phenomenon that figured prominently in the responses of students in this study. Despite this dependence, users are often unaware of their own habits.

There are also two distinctive modes that users engage in within an awareness system: sharing information about oneself and checking on such information from others. These two practices are mutually dependent, as Schmidt (2002) describes: “My monitoring the activities of others is facilitated by their displaying those aspects that are relevant for me and my displaying aspects of my work to others presupposes that I am monitoring their activities and thereby am aware of their concerns, expectations and intentions” [8]. According to Schmidt (2002), these practices are not careless; rather, “actors exhibit great care and much skill in choosing an interactional modality that is obtrusive or unobtrusive to a degree and in a manner that is appropriate to the situation at hand” [9].

Many of the technologies and media of communication now commonplace, particularly among young people, can be considered awareness systems: Facebook status updates and posts to other social networking sites, Twitter posts, any of the various chat applications for computer or phones (i.e., Google chat, Skype, etc.) and countless other programs contribute to maintaining awareness of the activities, context, or status of individuals and social groups, while mobile devices allow users to access the information constantly. Hermida (2010) suggests that Twitter could be considered an awareness system, “a system where news is reported, disseminated and shared online in short, fast, and frequent messages ... [creating] an ambient media system that displays abstracted information in a space occupied by the user.” He claims that such “broad, asynchronous, lightweight and always–on communication systems ... are enabling citizens to maintain a mental model of news and events around them” [10]. Communication devices are allowing people to develop and maintain these mental models more constantly than ever before by retaining the awareness of activities, interests, and opinions of others.

Affective awareness and connectedness

Within the study of awareness systems, affective awareness has received special attention. Liechti and Ichikawa (2000) discuss affective awareness as “the general sense of being in touch with someone’s friends and family.” Much as Carey’s (1984) ritual model of communication emphasized the importance of the act of communicating over the content communicated, IJsselsteijn, et al. (2003) found that, for communication through awareness systems, “the informational content of the message is of secondary importance to the emotional, relational content that is being transmitted.” The research of van Baren, et al. (2004) on communication of emotional content, which they called connectedness, found that participants reported feeling very connected, “thinking about each other, feeling involved, and being emotionally touched” [11]. Rettie (2003) prefers the term ‘connectedness,’ which she suggests is a more fundamental concept than awareness or social presence. Nonetheless, she claimed: “The concept of connectedness is related to awareness, in that it is often the awareness of presence that creates the experience of connectedness.” Romero, et al. (2007) conclude:

Connectedness describes in a medium–independent way the feelings of being in touch with someone, being aware of what happens in their lives, feeling they think and care about you as this results from a phone call, an e–mail message, or any form of communication. It also pertains to the need to be informed about them that grows with the frequency of communication and it brings about some costs, e.g., the feeling of being monitored or of having to communicate. [12]

Christian Licoppe’s (2004) concept of “connected presence” explores the impact of communication technologies on the creation of seemingly ongoing and endless mediated interactions “that combine into ‘connected relationships’ in which boundaries between absence and presence eventually get blurred” [13]. His work on the use of mobile phones examines the management of relationships that tend to be detached from the actual places in which these relationships occur. “Here the connection is guaranteed through a device that is both technological ... and social” [14].

Rather than constructing a shared experience by telling each other about small and big events during the day and the week, interlocutors exchange small expressive messages signaling a perception, a feeling, or an emotion, or requiring from the other person the same type of expressive message. [15]

The potential to be constantly connected, and the corresponding development of feelings of obligation to share information and to be available, as well as growing expectations that others are similarly available, can result in anxiety when interrupted. Christian Licoppe (2004) explored the expectations that develop from access to mobile phones, describing constant connectedness as both a new resource and a threat: “resource because the possibilities of making this private conversation even more continuous are enhanced; a threat because, as a result of this theoretical accessibility, each failure indicates unavailability, suggesting that one of the protagonists is too absorbed in a situation to resume the relationship” [16]. Similar expectations of accessibility are established through a constant presence online. As Licoppe points out, technical accessibility does not necessarily translate into social availability. Van Baren, et al. (2004) found that communication for social and emotional purposes can generate strong expectations:

Participants describe how they can feel disappointed, frustrated, or even angry when these are not fulfilled. Because of this, strong feelings of obligation may arise. People are afraid to hurt or offend the other by not responding to a contact or failing to initiate one at the expected time or frequency. [17]

They conclude that the awareness system they tested delivered “substantial affective benefits” without increasing the costs associated with communication [18], however these and other studies have not explored the effect of removing awareness systems after they have been introduced and expectations have developed, or the effect of disconnecting from an awareness system when others in the social circle are connected and expect connection.

Hermida (2010) traces the idea of awareness systems, as any of a number of systems designed to enable awareness, however variously defined, to Weiser and Brown (Weiser, 1991; Weiser and Brown, 1995). They promoted the advancement of technology to a stage where it became embedded and invisible in people’s lives. As Aarts (2004) describes it, “In an ambient–intelligent world, electronic systems consisting of networked–intelligent devices will integrate into people’s surroundings, giving them information, communication, services, and entertainment wherever they are and whenever they want” [19]. Early theory about ambient intelligence and awareness systems sought the integration of the technology into surroundings. Markopoulos (2009) suggests, “A common ambition for such systems is that such a mental model is constructed and maintained with low effort, in such a way that it does not hinder primary activities of the individuals concerned” [20]. These concepts are central to ideas of domestication of technology and remediation.


The implementation, incorporation and consumption process of technology and new communication media into the fabric of the everyday has been described as domestication. The emphasis is on how people attribute meaning to technologies and how they use them as material objects as well as symbolic goods. Berker, et al. (2006) note that domestication usually refers to the taming of a wild animal: “These ‘strange’ and ‘wild’ technologies have to be ‘house–trained’; they have to be integrated into the structures, daily routines and values of users and their environments” [21]. Similar to the unobtrusiveness described in studies of ambient intelligence and awareness systems, a successful domestication leads to “reliable and trustworthy” tools that have lost their “magic” by becoming “part of the routine.” This process is not just a one–way street, but also describes the creation of an “environment that is increasingly mediated by technologies” [22].

The integration of information and communication technologies (ICT), such as computers, smart phones and tablets, into the everyday also raises questions regarding the negotiation and reproduction of social spheres (private and public) and values. These ICT “provide, actively, interactively or passively, links between households, and individual members of households, with the world beyond their front door” [23]. Technological innovations over the past two decades have started to blur the line between private and public spaces and enabled the transition of private conversations into public spaces (Silverstone, 2006). The integration of ICT into the everyday creates a more seamless experience that is described as “the dissolving of boundaries between the macro–, meso–, and micro–levels of social life, between the public and the private sphere and between the spheres of living, working, studying, recreation and travelling” [24]. Living spheres have become increasingly multifunctional — Facebook use in classrooms involves social and academic modalities. Van Dijk argues that multifunctionality alone does not dissolve boundaries, but that they start to blur when remaining spaces for special purposes are linked.

These effects may be increased through the taming of technologies in a domestication process that seeks the inconspicuous integration of these gadgets into everyday life. While there may be a difference between those devices or functions of devices which provide information when needed and those which offer notifications when information is available, their inconspicuous integration into everyday life is similar. Licoppe (2010) points out notification devices have acquired a positive value in the last decade, as their design rationale has changed:

They have been made more subtle and have been given some degree of ‘intelligence,’ in the sense of being endowed with capacities to anticipate some of the circumstances in which they might be used. Their design is therefore more and more marked by a tension between the need for them to be perceptually salient (to be noticed), while proving less intrusive, causing less of an imposition on their recipient, and allowing her/him more leeway in their acknowledgment and treatment. [25]


Bolter and Grusin (1999) suggest that the ubiquity of ICT and other media systems may tear down the boundary between the technological and the social, and that mediation strives to erase all traces of technology. They call this the double logic of remediation: “Our culture wants both to multiply its media and to erase all traces of mediation: ideally, it wants to erase its media in the very act of multiplying them” [26]. This in turn is steeped in the concept of hypermedia:

hypermedia applications are always explicit acts of remediation: they import earlier media into a digital space in order to critique and refashion them. However, digital media that strive for transparency and immediacy (such as immersive virtual reality and virtual games) also remediate. Hypermedia and transparent media are opposite manifestations of the same desire: the desire to get past the limits of representation and to achieve the real. [27]

It is this “insatiable desire for immediacy” that is linked to the urge of being “really” there through an interactive process of production that in its “feeling of fullness, a satiety of experience ... can be taken as reality” [28]. The integration of ICT into the everyday and the active sharing, interacting, and extending of one’s life into social networks can become part of reality invisible to its users.

The question remains whether it is useful to seek a dividing line between the real world experience and the mediated experience through ICT. Much as social presence theory measured the salience of feeling another person, the integration of ICT may enhance a user’s sense of being “really” part of the ambient media environment. Markham (1998) suggests after her work on real experiences of users in a virtual world that “whether online or offline, everything that is experienced is real, and everything that is not experienced is not experienced. Real becomes a double negative; simply put, when experiences are experienced, they cannot be ‘not real’” [29]. She concludes that terms such as real, hyperreal, not real, or virtual are not meaningful because our experiences cannot be easily separated into those categories. Hermida (2010) challenges researchers “to understand how this place becomes, in the words of Harrison and Dourish, ‘the understood reality’ through a conversational and collaborative user experience” [30].

Aarts (2004) notes that the new paradigm aims to make electronic devices disappear into user environments, including ‘ambient intelligence,’ which takes ‘the integration provided by ubiquitous computing one step further by realizing environments that are sensitive and responsive to the presence of people’ [31]. He cautions that while ‘ambient intelligence is aimed at providing calm technology that surrounds people in an unobtrusive way,’ it is important to ‘face the effects that these novel technologies may have on the human being’ [32], including ethical concerns, and how people perceive reality. He asks, ‘Will people become so accustomed to interacting with ambient intelligence that it will affect the way they interact with one another? If people come to experience more of the real world through technology than directly through the senses, will these indirect experiences be less valid?’ [33]. The potential effects of living in such an environment are precisely the object of interest of this study.

Together these concepts suggest that the ICTs in popular use today create an ambient media environment, where information of all kinds — particularly about our social connections — is constantly available through awareness systems seamlessly integrated in daily life. This study attempts to examine some of the issues raised by living in an ambient media environment through an analysis of several hundred students reflecting on their attempt to avoid media for 24 hours. In this context, we ask the following research questions:

RQ1: To what extent do student responses to the abstention from media reflect the existence of ambient media and awareness systems?

RQ2: How does the existence of ambient media affect students around the world — socially, emotionally, and behaviorally?

To this end we analyzed more than 500,000 words written by students in response to the challenge to go 24 hours without media. University students are an ideal population for a study of ambient media, as they have grown up in a world full of ICT devices. Of course, they are not representative of the experience of everyone in the world, as people in rural, remote or poor areas of the world do not live in the same ambient media world. What they can show us is how people living with ambient media respond to removal from that environment. We hope that information can provide some insight into the effects of living in such an environment.





A total of 891 students from 12 universities participated in this study: two large east coast universities in the U.S., as well as major universities in Argentina, Chile, China, Hong Kong, Lebanon, Mexico, Slovakia, Uganda, and the United Kingdom. The number of participants varied widely from country to country; for instance, there were 15 participants from Chile, 75 from Slovakia, and 270 from the U.S. Each of the 12 institutions recruited student participants from undergraduate courses in media, journalism, or communication. Students were provided the assignment — and offered an alternative assignment if they were not interested in participating — and asked to sign consent forms. The assignment (Appendix) stated that students were to set a goal of not consuming any media for 24 hours — no Internet, no newspapers or magazines, no TV, no mobile phones, no iPod, no music, no movies, no Facebook, Playstation, video games, etc. — and then to write a blog response discussing the experience, but that there was no penalty for failure. The data were collected over a three–month period from September to December 2010, the specific dates varying according to university calendars and curricula.

Given that there is little existing data on the effects of ambient media, the study used a grounded theory approach to analyze the responses. Grounded theory as a method begins with the data collection, rather than the hypothesis, and derives concepts and categories from the data. Six graduate researchers and two undergraduate researchers first read through and coded the responses (non–English language responses were translated by undergraduate researchers or professors at the university where the data was collected), and then grouped the codes into categories, many of which corresponded to emotional responses, behavioral changes, and particular technological devices described by students, and then grouped the codes into positive and negative categories. The broader negative categories were dependence/self–ascribed addiction, distress, confusion, isolation, and boredom. Fewer positive categories emerged from the data and were summarized under calm, relief, and contentment. Researchers put the data into ManyEyes software and used word tree functions to quantify the most commonly appearing words, in order to confirm the prevailing codes and categories, and view the words in context (for example, when students used the word “calm,” was it to say they felt more calm without their phone, or that they felt less calm?).

The authors then began working with the categories, considering how they fit in the context of ambient media theory as developed from the literature on awareness systems, remediation, and domestication, going back and forth between the theory and literature, and the data. We checked our preliminary understanding of the relevant factors against the literature on ambient media, awareness systems and other relevant concepts, so that we could revise and expand on the potential dimensions. We discussed what might be relevant and considered the emotional responses in the context of previous ambient media studies.




Student responses to the assignment were often emotional and verbose. About half of the students were unable to complete the 24 hours without media, and many wrote more than the assignment required. Responses fell into a few broad negative categories (feelings of distress, dependence/self–described addition, isolation, anxiety, etc.) and positive (feelings of relief, peace or contentment) categories. Overall, students used 3.5 times more negative expressions (6,391) than positive ones (1,799) in terms of the word count.

The most frequent theme was dependence or self–described addiction to media or media technology, followed by feelings of distress (particularly anxiety) caused by being unplugged. The third most frequently appearing category was relief — relief from the necessity to consume media or use media technology. Confusion and isolation were the next most frequent categories. Students emphasized the feeling of missing out and of not knowing what was happening with people in their immediate social circle, as well as in the wider world. Students often mentioned parents, friends or significant others that they missed communicating with during the 24–hour period.

Even though several students felt content or calm (these two categories had the lowest overall frequency), many found that their daily routines were tied to the media devices they were asked to avoid — phones were used as alarm clocks, maps and navigators, while music devices provided entertainment during commutes, exercise and, in many cases, any otherwise unoccupied moment of the day. Some students found they had difficulty coping without their devices, as they were unpracticed in asking strangers for directions, or even uncomfortable driving, running, or walking without music. The responses in large part validated the findings of the various studies of awareness systems and ambient information.

Ambient media

While the assignment itself implies the existence of an ambient media environment, and the questions asked in the assignment may have primed them to discuss media dependence, student responses further confirmed that the world in which they live is full of awareness systems that provide a constant stream of information, through seamlessly integrated devices. It was very common for students to express difficulty in avoiding media during their media–free period, as they are surrounded by various media at almost all times. They found public spaces filled with information media (television, radio, newspapers on newsstands), as well as finding people they encountered — friends, family, strangers in public — attending to media in ways that either distracted them or drew them in. A student from China wrote, in a typical observation,

“Kiosks on the street are displaying newspapers with the latest headlines, TV screens are installed inside metro stations and music is played in every supermarket. The only chance to avoid media completely is to lock yourself into your room or travel to some remote place. But in the city it’s nearly impossible.”

Observing others interacting with media was part of the experience as well, as a student from Hong Kong wrote,

“When I traveled on the bus, everyone around me was talking on the phone, watching TV news, listening to music and so on.”

A Slovakian student wrote,

“When I came home my mother and sister were there and they were watching television so I went to my room and I was thinking a long time what to do. After this long thinking I decided to visit my grandparents who live in the same village as me ... I did not stay inside because my grandmother was watching TV in the living room and my grandfather was listening to radio in the kitchen.”

Students not only had difficulty because of the ubiquity of media in the world around them, but also because of their personal desires and needs to access the information they wanted. They expressed a sense of having left an existing “world,” in which they feel everyone else lives, and that being outside this environment was challenging and difficult. A student from Uganda wrote,

“It was not an easy experience because I felt I was in kind of another world — left out.”

Another student, from the U.K., wrote about being left out:

“Without being able to access the Internet, read a newspaper or listen to the radio I felt completely cut–off from the world. I was edgy and irritated for most of the day and couldn’t even listen to my music to calm me down. I tried to preoccupy myself with written work and a trip into town — but all I wanted to do was pick up my phone and become a part of the human race again.”

One student from the U.K. wrote,

“I kept thinking of stuff that I wanted to look up on the computer. This charity I’d heard about, this cinema that was meant to be good, the Google map to get to the cinema, whether my library books were overdue, whether anyone on eBay had a blue parlor chair for sale, if Christina Rossetti had written ‘When I am dead, my dearest’ (she had), if ‘The Wizard Of Oz’ was Channel 4’s number one musical (it wasn’t) and speaking of which how are MGM? The constant train of thought is immense in the silence.”

Affective awareness and connectedness

Both affective awareness and emotional connectedness have been frequently observed in studies of ambient media or information systems. Students who participated in the exercise to avoid media also reflected on the degree to which their use of media was related to their feelings of connectedness to friends and family. A student from Hong Kong expressed a need for this affective awareness:

“I kept imagining what they are doing and writing in Facebook, and wondering what they are chatting on MSN. I had a strong urge to connect with them.”

As some studies of awareness systems and connectedness suggested, the students developed expectations related to their feelings of connectedness and many expressed feelings of disappointment, loneliness or isolation when they were not able to meet these expectations. A student from the U.S. wrote,

“I depend so heavily on my phone to relieve any sort of social anxiety.”

and another, from Slovakia, wrote,

“The majority of day I spent sleeping, doing household chores and helping my mum in kitchen. I cooked and prepared a delicious salad. My mum was proud of me. But I still felt isolated, without information and limited to the people around me.”

In addition, the sense of obligation to be available to others — something often noted in studies of awareness systems — was evident in student responses. Much of the anxiety that students felt was not related to their inability to get information, but their inability to provide information to their social contacts. Several students noted that their family or friends were upset with them, while others worried that their family or friends would be worried about them when they were not available. A student from Hong Kong wrote,

“The worst thing of my day was not being able to let my mom know about my current location and status.”

A Mexican student from wrote,

“I felt the urgent need to tell my acquaintances that I would not have my cell phone or be connected to the Internet for a whole day. I felt a strange anxiety, I felt like if I would not tell them, something terrible would happen and nobody would be able to communicate with me. The anxiety continued for the rest of the day and various scenarios came to my head, from kidnappings to extra–terrestrial invasions, all emphasized by the fact that my loved ones could not get in touch with me.”

Another student, from Uganda, wrote,

“I missed communicating with my friends through daily social networks and they also felt like there was a problem with me.”

A student from Lebanon wrote about having to notify others of the plan to avoid media:

“First up was drafting a list of things I needed to do before unplugging. 1. Notify friends who are used to seeing me online daily of the duration I will spend offline on Skype (much more of an issue than with my cell phone), 2. Notify some colleagues that I will not be checking my email.”

Others wrote,

“Firstly, I had to call to my family, boyfriend and to my best friend to tell them about my ‘escape from real life.’”

Another wrote that when she missed a call from her boyfriend, he was upset:

“For one hour ago when I switched on my mobile, I saw it was my boyfriend who called me. Now he is very angry and does not talk with me.”

A student from Hong Kong expressed the relief that came from re–engaging with the affective awareness systems:

“At 3:00, I cannot help using my mobile phone to see if any person has contacted me and check email and have a look at my regularly go–to social websites — such as QQ, Facebook and RenRen. I only used it about 10 minutes but I felt much more relaxed and happier.”

The cell phone as awareness system

The cell phone provides portable, always–on contact with social contacts, and was the subject of a great deal of discussion. Student responses frequently discussed an emotional connection or dependence on the mobile or cell phone, but Rettie (2003) suggests that people often feel the “experience of connectedness to an object rather than to a person, although the meaning embodied in the experience is derived from the other person.” This was reflected in the student responses, which mentioned people in connection with the phones (“I was used to texting my boyfriend”), but also talked about the phone itself as an object of longing. One student held their phone in their hand for comfort. A student from Lebanon wrote,

“The idea of my phone kept jumping into my mind. I was not eager to message or call anyone, I was more eager to just ‘see’ my phone in front of me.”

Many wrote about feeling phantom vibrations or seeing others with phones and feeling envy.

Mobile devices, such as cell phones and particularly smart phones, are the ultimate devices for providing constant connection. Smart phones that provide online access offer the entire spectrum of media access to users and hence constitute a comprehensive awareness system. Cell phones are minicomputers that allow their users to gain direct access to the wealth of information of the Internet, including both public sites and social networks. They provide access both to quasi–synchronous forms of communication beyond phone calls, such as instant messaging, and asynchronous communication, such as text messaging, e–mail, or messages, comments and links on social network sites — or as one student from Argentina pointed out:

“I have a Blackberry phone that rings too many times a day — not just for phone calls or SMS but also for my two email accounts, Facebook and Twitter.”

For many participants in the study, phones are technological extensions of social needs that helped them to survey the environment, organize their day, stay in touch with family and friends and retrieve information whenever required.

Cell phones seem to create something like a portable media bubble, an ambient media world that moves with the users wherever they go. They can provide emotional comfort, as a student in the U.S. wrote,

“My phone is my only source of comfort, whether it’s just a text message asking where the new batteries to the remote are hiding, or my mom calling me so my four–year–old sister can ramble in my ears half–constructed sentences about her first day at preschool. I need that.”

The absence of the perceived instant connectivity was often the first instance for participants of our study to become aware of the role that cell phones had acquired in their lives or, as a student from Argentina put it:

“One does not realize how dependent we are on media (in my case, to my cell phone) until we lose touch with it all. Our minds are accustomed to the frenetic pace that we have self–imposed on ourselves and when we disconnect from all that media machines, we feel something is missing in our daily lives.”

The removal of their cell phone, a system that maintains contact and awareness of people’s activities, also created feelings of discomfort and uncertainty, as a student from China described:

“I would feel irritable, tense, restless and anxious when I could not use my mobile phone. When I couldn’t communicate with my friends, I felt so lonely, as if I was in a small cage in a solitary island.”

The avoidance of cell phone use also highlighted previously unrecognized habits. A student from the U.S. put it like this:

“I realized that I am always texting people, whether it is during class, in between classes, or just sitting in my dorm. For some reason I feel the need to constantly be communicating with someone.”

Habits or daily routines also point towards the seamless integration of awareness systems into the everyday life. The overreliance on cell phones made certain seemingly insignificant daily tasks problematic, as a student from the U.K. wrote:

“I usually use my iPhone as an alarm clock — so after remembering the assignment I rummaged through my belongings to find an old watch. It occurred to me that I rely on technology for things I hadn’t even realized before. And without my iPhone to organize me, I felt quite vulnerable.”

This dependence on the cell phone also resulted in a state of being perplexed by the lack of alternative strategies to solve routine problems for several students. A student from Slovakia wrote,

“I don’t write down notes on the paper, I don’t have a paper calendar, I don’t even have a grocery list on paper. Everything is in my phone.”

Invisibility/seamless integration

Awareness systems and the concept of ambient media are based on the notion of seamless integration and unobtrusive acceptance of media systems in everyday life. The technologies and the process of mediation submerge into the background of the environment but define the perception of reality and influence seemingly automated behavior of information and knowledge acquisition. Users absorb media messages through interfaces and technologies without necessarily evaluating the tools that deliver the content. The design and the prescriptive use of technology and software can guide and sometimes even structure the behavior and thinking of users. In the 24–hour without media assignment, participants indicated in many cases that their daily activities and thinking was influenced by their media consumption and media technology use. Unplugging and attempting to abstain from any kind of media for 24 hours revealed for many participants, such as this student from Argentina, the ambient media world they live in every day:

“The first thing I noticed is that in the absence of media, I could not contact anyone to do anything.”

Similarly, a student from the U.K. said,

“I was very surprised at how difficult it was to completely cut media out for a whole day. I found that media is places that you don’t even expect it to be, and that you don’t realize that it is everywhere, literally.”

Several participants described the integration of their use of media and media technology as an almost unconscious routine, as this student from the U.K. notes:

“After dinner I logged into my computer with the intent of doing some work. I however, as if by reflex found myself browsing the news feed on ‘Facebook’, I was shocked at how easily I messed up, I logged-in almost unconsciously and without any real desire to.”

This habitual usage of media technologies and the subsequent establishment of behavioral expectations were often described by participants as something closely connected to the self, which lives in a quasi symbiotic relationship with the media technologies. Students from the U.K.:

“Unplugging my ethernet cable feels like turning off a life support system”; Chile: “I mean, my whole entire and complete life is connected (in an Internet way of been ‘connected’) from the moment I wake up till the end of my day. Even in my dreams I see myself chatting, using Skype, Twitter, adding people on Facebook”; U.S.: “People use to joke to me how my iPhone was an attachment of my own self. I always played it off as a joke until now”; and China: “As matter of fact, I’m quite addicted to the computer and the Internet. In the wake of this experiment, I realized that media is spread like a web that binds me. Perhaps before I became aware of it, its threads took root in my muscles, blood, nerves and everywhere.”

Media and media technologies become central determinants for any kind of activity to the point that they define and at times limit the options for entertainment and personal communication or social interaction. Many participants were so used to their media–integrated routines that they could not think of any alternatives for finding information and establishing contact with friends or family. A student from Slovakia wrote,

“I was literally staring at the wall, because from my point of view, that’s almost the only thing you can do nowadays without a PC, TV or cell phone.”

Another, from China:

“Without cell phones, we cannot keep in touch with each other and it is inconvenient for us. It will take less time for us to solve some problems with phones than without it; we cannot make sure whether our relatives have a nice life or not; we cannot look through the data which is important for us; we are totally in a society which is closed to outside world.”

At the other end of the scale participants also became aware of analog forms of communication as viable, or even superior alternatives to the digital ones: students engaged in deeper conversation with parents and friends, helped with household tasks, or spent time outside. Yet even the appreciation of face–to–face interaction is steeped in a language dominated by ambient media, as this student from the U.K. described it:

“I have legs, which I now believe are underestimated as a social tool, as they allowed me to go and see people and communicate with them wirelessly.”



Discussion and conclusion

Student responses to the exercise overwhelmingly supported the proposition that they live in an ambient media environment, one that provokes many of the responses predicted by previous studies of awareness systems and ambient information. There was evidence of the seamless integration of awareness systems into daily life, the expectations that develop with constant connectedness, anxiety stemming from the failure to meet those expectations, and the importance users give to the devices themselves due to the sense of emotional connectedness they provide. While some students made up for the lack of contact with distant social connections by making deeper connections to those in their physical vicinity, they nonetheless felt its absence, and in many cases were at least initially unable to find substitutes for the place it filled in their lives. The students mostly came from developed countries and were engaged in university study, which likely makes them exceptional in terms of their education and use of media technology, so while their responses cannot be generalized to the world’s population, they can offer insight into the experiences of the increasing number who do have access to the devices that provide constant connection.

The data from this study demonstrate the degree to which human culture is becoming increasingly tied to media technology, such that for users to remove that technology from their lives feels like leaving “the real world.” As Aarts (2004) writes: “Ambient intelligence is more than just a question of embedding technology into objects. It involves human culture in its broadest sense: universal desires; complex social relationships; diverse value systems; individual likes and dislikes; the sustainability of economic and natural ecosystems; and codes of ethics, conduct, and communication, both in civil society and in business” [34]. It is difficult to separate some of the effects — the combination of social information and connectedness with public information and news all arriving through the same devices — as well as the different behaviors — such as seeking information versus being notified (Licoppe, 2010). Despite the difficulty in untying the complicated strands of the various types of information and how they arrive, the data at least point to some areas that are worth examination.

Students’ sense that they were missing out on something when not connected was also consistent with findings in previous studies of awareness systems. As van Baren, et al. (2004) noted, awareness systems may create expectations that are emotionally destructive when unfulfilled. Students who became accustomed to knowing where their friends and family were and what they were doing felt frustrated or anxious when they were not able to access that information, and conversely, felt guilty when they were not available or able to provide that information to others.

The implications for people enveloped in an ambient media environment go beyond the simple exchange of information that is constantly available. Lievrouw (2001) argues that new technologies change fundamental social behaviors.

People in an information environment share what they know and create and use information, both in person and via various media technologies. They produce patterns of social relationships (for example, interpersonal networks, social structures), practices (for example, cultural expressions, education, politics) and common knowledge (for example, tastes, norms, value systems) that persist and evolve over time. They express, break down and revise their shared understanding(s) in interpersonal, work, kinship, ethnic or advice networks. [35]

The consequences of the embedding of social relationships, value systems, and the like are evident in student responses to experiencing withdrawal from the technology and objects into which they are embedded. A common response in the reflections was that “we” are dependent on media to a degree that students had previously been unaware. They were not completely unreflective in their discussion of that dependence — many expressed recognition of the potentially negative effects of their dependence, while arguing that it would be difficult to unplug entirely given the demand for interaction imposed by their society. While we do not yet have a complete understanding of the effect of living in an ambient media environment, our hope is that the identification of the characteristics of the system and some of its effects will aid in future research of those effects.

Previous studies of awareness systems have generally provided subjects with new tools in a controlled setting and asked them to describe their feelings during or after the experiment. However, many existing devices already commonly in use provide just the kind of connectedness that awareness systems attempt to provide. The data for this study were gathered in an ecologically valid setting, as students were in a completely natural environment, but asked to avoid the media and ICT devices they use so regularly. Limitations of this study include the wording of the assignment, which may have primed students to talk more about their difficulties with the assignment. Assignment prompts specifically asked how the day was different in terms of logistics, whether students felt any psychological effects, whether they were surprised by the ease or difficulty of the assignment, what the experience says about how students and others use media, and whether we miss anything by not being connected or by being connected. Another limitation is the selected population, which is limited to students who are tech–savvy and privileged relative to the general population in their nations of study. However, although students were assumed to be very tech–savvy, our data indicated that they did not anticipate any severe consequences from avoiding media for 24 hours, which may suggest that priming effects were limited. The cultural differences among participants in the sample may have affected responses (for example, isolation or loneliness may have different meanings in different cultures), but the apparent similarity of responses may indicate the degree of homogenization of culture encouraged by immersion in an ambient media environment, or the consistency of the human response to ambient media. There are also limits on what we can learn about living in an ambient media world through the attempt to avoid the media that create that environment, but we find the data convincing.

Nonetheless, the results certainly suggest that existing media technologies have observable effects on social relationships and behaviors, but much remains unknown about the use of mobile devices and other communication devices that provide ambient information, particularly regarding changes in perceptions and social patterns that result from changing behaviors. Based on the responses of many students, it may no longer be necessary to test ambient media or awareness systems, but rather to attempt to remove them, as they have become ubiquitous — at least for college students. The results of this study suggest that technology has become embedded in their lives to such an extent that they depend on certain devices, consider them fundamental, and use them “without thinking.” Future research into awareness systems and ambient information might further examine how we are learning new social patterns and neglecting old social abilities, as reflected in the student responses in this study, or how these changes may have effects at a more fundamental level. A longer period of media avoidance or deprivation may also be a useful study, as the immediate response to losing connection may be different from the adaptations over a longer time period away from ambient media. It may be helpful to separately examine the use of communication media to maintain awareness of social contacts and so called “connectedness” and to access information or follow public news and events. Future research might also attempt to draw out the differences in “push” and “pull” media, examining how users are affected differently by the two ways of acquiring information. End of article


About the authors

Jessica Roberts is a lecturer in communication at Xi’an Jiaotong–Liverpool University in Suzhou, China. She received her Ph.D. in journalism studies from the University of Maryland. Her research interests are in new media and changing definitions of journalism; her dissertation analyzed the response of professional journalists to WikiLeaks.
E–mail: jessyrob [at] gmail [dot] com

Michael Koliska is a doctoral candidate and instructor in the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. He studies the implementation, effects, and institutional implications of transparency in journalism.
E–mail: mkoliska [at] jmail [dot] umd [dot] edu



The research for the World Unplugged study was a collaborative effort led by Susan Moeller at the University of Maryland. Stine Eckert, Sergei Golitsinski, Elia Powers, Soo–Kwang Oh and other graduate and undergraduate students at the University of Maryland assisted in the initial analysis of data. In addition, faculty at the various participating institutions were invaluable in gathering and combining data.



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2. Schmidt, 2002, p. 287.

3. Schmidt, 2002, p. 289.

4. Romero, et al., 2007, p. 300.

5. Markopoulos, 2009, p. 116.

6. De Souza e Silva, 2006, p. 20.

7. Townsend, 2001, p. 70.

8. Schmidt, 2002, p. 291.

9. Schmidt, 2002, p. 292.

10. Hermida, 2010, p. 301.

11. Van Baren, et al., 2004, p. 15.

12. Romero, et al., 2007, p. 311.

13. Licoppe, 2004, p. 136.

14. Licoppe, 2004, p. 147.

15. Ibid.

16. Licoppe, 2004, p. 145.

17. Van Baren, et al., 2004, p. 15.

18. Van Baren, et al., 2004, p. 18.

19. Aarts, 2004, p. 12.

20. Markopoulos, 2009, p. 115.

21. Berker, et al., 2006, p. 2.

22. Berker, et al., 2006, p. 3.

23. Silverstone and Hirsch, 1992, p. 15.

24. Van Dijk, 2006, p. 161.

25. Licoppe, 2010, p. 300.

26. Bolter and Grusin, 1999, p. 5.

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28. Ibid.

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31. Aarts, 2004, p. 12.

32. Aarts, 2004, p. 18.

33. Aarts, 2004, p. 19.

34. Aarts, 2004, p. 16.

35. Lievrouw, 2001, pp. 14–15.



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The assignment

Your assignment is to find a 24–hour period during which you can pledge to give up all media: no Internet, no newspapers or magazines, no TV, no mobile phones, no iPod, no music, no movies, no Facebook, Playstation, video games, etc.

If you lapse by mistake (i.e., you answer a phone call without realizing it), do not then “give up.” Note the mistake and go on to finish your 24 hours. If do NOT make it the full 24 hours, be honest about it. How long did you make it? What happened? What do you think it means about you?

Although you may need to use your computer for homework or work, try to pick a time when you can go without using it — which may mean that you have to plan your work so that you can get it done before or after your 24–hour media–free period. You will not be judged on whether you went 24 hours, but we expect that you all will make it through the entire time without using any forms of media.

After you have completed your 24 hours you are to write about your experiences. Your comments should be at least 300 words.

In your comments, you may want to reflect on the following questions: What about your day was different in terms of logistics? Did you feel any psychological effects? Were you surprised either by how hard or how easy it was? What does your experience say about you, about our society and about how you — and everyone around you — use media? If you find that you are tied to media, what about those in our society who are not connected? Is there something they’re missing? Is there something you’re missing out on by being so surrounded by media?


Editorial history

Received 8 February 2014; accepted 30 July 2014.

Creative Commons License
“The effects of ambient media: What unplugging reveals about being plugged in” by Jessica Roberts and Michael Koliska is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–NonCommercial–NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

The effects of ambient media: What unplugging reveals about being plugged in
by Jessica Roberts and Michael Koliska.
First Monday, Volume 19, Number 8 - 4 August 2014