Book Review: Digital Ground: Architecture, Pervasive Computing, and Environmental Knowing

February 23, 2009
Digital Ground

Author: Malcolm McCullough

Publisher: MIT Press

Publication date: October 2005

Format: Paperback; 8.1 x 5.5 x 0.7 inches; 290 pages

ISBN: 978-0262633277

List price: $14.95


Within the context of pervasive computing, which weaves intelligence into the fabric of our environments, architectural design informs interaction design as much as interaction design transforms architectural design. So suggests Malcolm McCullough in this extraordinarily deep dive into design theory and the impact of digital, interactive technologies on architecture.

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McCullough dispenses with superficial instantiations of digital technology in the built environment—think smart buildings, telepresence, and even GPS-enabled phones—grappling instead with the structural foundations of architectural design theory: the meaning of place, Heidegger’s dwelling, Mumford’s urban planning, and Giedion’s space in the context of “ambient, haptic, and environmentally embedded interface elements.”

While McCullough argues pervasive computing, cyberspace, and virtual realities are grounded in the legacy of architectural design theory, he tacitly accepts their arrival as potential game-changers in the making of architecture. He says, “Whereas previous paradigms of cyberspace threatened to dematerialize architecture, pervasive computing invites a defense of architecture.”

Ultimately, Digital Ground is about architecture in the most profound meaning of the word: how place is imbued with meaning through design. McCullough quietly, yet forcefully argues that, no matter how much a technological innovation purports to make the built environment ephemeral, we cannot escape the fundamentals of architecture. He speaks to both architects and interaction designers when he says: “In sum, my essential claim is that interaction design must now serve our basic human need for getting into place.”


Digital Ground comprises three main parts—each consisting of three chapters—accompanied by an introduction, epilog, extensive notes, bibliography, and index.


McCullough establishes the basis of his rhetorical argument: Why bother considering pervasive technologies as an architectural design problem at all? Several disciplines inform his argument: “philosophers on embodiment, psychologists on persistent structures, architects on scale and type, engineers on embedded systems, cultural geographers on infrastructures, and environmental economists on the value of place.”

Part I: Expectations

McCullough begins by describing our expectations about both pervasive computing technologies and the built environment. What is the promise for these technologies to enhance and enrich our lives? What do we expect from our built environment and our place in it? How do these two potentially disparate sets of expectations inform interaction design?

Chapter 1: Interactive Futures

McCullough lays the groundwork for the remainder of the book by defining terms such as pervasive, interaction, and ubiquity. He establishes the basis for later chapters by describing how much computing technologies already pervade the built environment. The majority of the chapter is a whirlwind tour of “technofutures” and their failure to characterize the real issues of digital technology and the built environment.

Comparing Gibson’s cyberspace with the Modernist’s Futurama from the 1939 World’s Fair, McCullough points out how such metaphors rapidly pass through our language and culture, but fail to make real change in our environments.

McCullough then takes to task some notions of pervasive computing, from surveillance to information pollution to system crashes. “Doors that swing open are one thing, but word processors that rewrite sentences or capitalize words on your behalf are another. Inflexibly configured systems might be tolerable in aesthetic matters such as lighting systems, but they are intolerable in critical matters such as medical equipment. Who programs all this stuff, how much of it can you reprogram, and how much programming and reprogramming can you stand?”

McCullough completes the chapter by providing a quick synopsis of the history of interaction design—ostensibly for architects and designers who are not yet familiar with the term or its origins—then revealing the cultural, rather than technical, challenges of pervasive computing.

McCullough ends this chapter with a prediction: As interaction design matures beyond merely improving business automation, it will tackle the implications of interactive environments that are fundamental to our culture and our humanity.

Chapter 2: Embodied Predispositions

In Chapter 2, McCullough discusses the difficult topic of embodiment—physical and philosophical perceptions of our body in space, our relationships to others, and ultimately, to people’s shifting definitions and perceptions of space over time and cultures. His survey of the topic includes existentialist philosophies, mental models, phenomenology, spatial learning, and more—finally landing in his section “The Case for Ground.” “For interaction designers seeking to know more about context, space, and place, and conversely for architects wanting to understand the roots of interactivity, the principles of embodied predispositions provide increasingly common ground.”

Chapter 3: Habitual Contexts

Beginning by defining context—“Context is not the setting itself, but the engagement with it, as well as the bias that setting gives to the interactions that occur within it.”—and introducing the concept of architectural types, McCullough argues that, because architecture is the foundation on which pervasive computing technologies rest, for pervasive computing to achieve its promise, interaction design must understand human interactions with environment. Our interactions always occur in the context of a built environment. How does the context of pervasive computing technologies change our expectations and engagement? Understanding ways of harmoniously integrating these two contexts increases the effect of interaction design on our lives while simultaneously returning architecture “to what it does better…the enduring formation of the periphery.”

Part II: Technologies

As its title suggests, Part II focuses on the hardware, software, and applications we associate with pervasive computing.

Chapter 4: Embedded Gear

McCullough moves rapidly past the desktop computer into the taxonomy of pervasive computing gear. Starting with embedded processors, sensors, and communications links and progressing to the highest level of engineering, “tuning,” McCullough describes a ten-layer system of components that support a pervasive computing environment.

After outlining this dizzying array of components and their multi-layered interaction, McCullough concludes: “Unless engineers are to face a debilitating agglomeration of gear, some aspect of context has to help with tuning and protocols. That aspect is type.” And by type he is referring to architectural type, which he introduced in the prior chapter. McCullough suggests ubiquitous computing is as much a myth as Modernist notions of universal space. “If, for example, one is tuning smart gear for a café, a lot of the work should be accomplished by the fact that this is a café. Location and type have to matter. Otherwise, with everything possible all the time, mostly chaos will result.”

Chapter 5: Location Models

According to McCullough, “Location models are not just maps of physical position, but are also representations of activity and organization.” As any design researcher familiar with contextual inquiry methods understands, models of behavior, decision flows, social networks, and tasks are intrinsic to understanding the nature of a design problem.

McCullough claims that, in spite of the Internet and mobile phone having liberated us from a single physical location, “geometry still matters.” Dispensing quickly with the trivial application of geolocation services, he systematically makes the argument that physical space has profound impacts on the effectiveness and success of mobile applications.

He concludes that, for pervasive computing to ultimately succeed, we need a robust set of location models, and in developing these, architecture can provide substantial assistance.

From mid-way through the chapter until its end, McCullough describes one possible location model: “geodata” underpinning “operations” on which “environmental systems” can rest. These let “users, actors, and stages” work together—ultimately permitting extensibility through “open systems.”

Chapter 6: Situated Types

The freedom proposed by pervasive and mobile computing does not scale. As these technologies become more prevalent, the lack of coordination among them is leading to a burdensome mish-mash of standards, protocols, and interfaces. True road warriors carry a bevy of dongles, cables, and adaptors—not to mention software applications that adapt to anything the environment might throw their way.

The solution, McCullough suggests, is typology. “Between conformity to a one-size-fits-all design and the chaos of infinite combinatorial possibility, there is a manageable range of recognizable situations.” McCullough points out that architecture, with its historical perspective, has demonstrated how technology rarely makes types obsolete. Rather, types change to accommodate new layers of technology. “The same cultural sensibility that finds substance in quiet architecture now turns its attention to situated gear.”

McCullough introduces a “rudimentary typology” of thirty situations, which he then explains in detail throughout the remainder of the chapter. He divides the thirty situations among four places: at work, at home, on the town, and on the road.

For example, he offers five types of on-the-road situations: gazing/touring, hoteling, adventuring, driving, walking. McCullough freely admits his categorization schema is idiosyncratic and could just as easily be organized differently, but the schema isn’t the point. Instead, he argues situational types are requisite for designing successful pervasive computing systems. Situational computing distinguishes itself from ubiquitous computing by imbuing the system with context-appropriate attributes.

Part III: Practices

In this final part, McCullough turns his attention to the art and craft of design practice.

Chapter 7: Designing Interactions

McCullough begins by discussing the cultural—as opposed to technical—challenges facing interaction designers. He defends the practice of design in general—and architecture and interaction design in particular—by describing the unique contribution these disciplines bring to solution spaces. He discusses the need for these two disciplines to work even more closely together. “The need to connect architecture and interaction design comes from overlapping subject matters and escalating social consequences.” Finally, McCullough describes the evolution of each discipline, finding overlap in their contemporary practices.

Chapter 8: Grounding Places

McCullough attempts to provide a definition of place. In this chapter, he reveals his main thesis for the book and the genesis of its title: “Digital ground is shorthand for a complex proposition: Interaction design must serve the basic human need for getting into place. Like architecture, and increasingly as a part of architecture, interaction design affects how each of us inhabits the physical world.”

His discussion of place is deep and broad, invoking philosophers, architectural theorists, urban planners, and landscape historians. He differentiates place from both community and placelessness.

McCullough expends considerable effort in finding a suitable definition, because for him, place is not “just some positional coordinates.” It is the common ground where interaction design and architecture meet.

Chapter 9: Accumulating Value

In the final chapter of Part III, McCullough confronts questions of economics and value. Places have inherent value. Leveraging that value through design—both architectural and interactive—increases the value of both the place and the design. “When location matters to the appropriateness and therefore to the success of a technology design, then the contribution of that design to the worthiness of that location becomes important.”

Much of the chapter explores post-industrial economics, in which the value of things is increasingly supplanted by the value of less tangible things: contexts, places, experiences.

Part IV: Epilog

Chapter 10: Going Native

In this brief coda, McCullough suggests we can achieve sustainable design only by embracing and integrating local complexities—integrating solutions in the physical context in which they must operate.


McCullough provides several dozen notes for each chapter, underpinning his points with references and supplementary comments.

Further Reading

This is a brief annotated bibliography of a dozen books McCullough considers essential to his thesis.


McCullough cites over 170 references to substantiate his arguments.


The Index is detailed, including references to both individuals and the topics he’s discussed in the book.


The book is as rich, dense, and layered as an Italian hill town. With each paragraph, McCullough introduces a minute step forward in his argument, even as he refers to past scholars to substantiate his points. His writing style borders on the pedantic, coming perilously close to losing me several times, but is substantially easier to follow than many of the canonical sources he relies on. The writing—and rhetoric—becomes particularly difficult when McCullough delves into the philosophical underpinnings of place.

“Nevertheless it is this phenomenological thread in twentieth-century thought that led to the interpretation of embodiment (Merleau-Ponty), contextual perception (Gibson), and situated action (Suchman) that ground current work in interactivity. When interpreted at the social scale, this history also led to urban typology (Rossi), inhabitation patterns (Alexander), and place identity (Norberg-Shulz). To the latter, ‘the environmental crisis is evident [even] in the flat neutrality of a domestic interior wall’.”

Many readers might be familiar with both William Gibson, author of Neuromancer, and Christopher Alexander, who wrote A Pattern Language, but how many would understand the significance of these works as they relate to place? How many of these same readers would be familiar with Aldo Rossi’s post-modernist urban planning theories or Norberg-Shulz’s modernist views on place? At such points in the book, a reader who is familiar with architectural theory and criticism and has an appreciation of post-modern literature will likely be rewarded with a nuanced understanding of McCullough’s ideas.

Thankfully, passages such as these are infrequent and not essential to understanding McCullough’s main points. In his defense, he often follows up his more academic propositions with summaries he’s written in plain and simple language.

McCullough’s post-modernist viewpoint is unapologetic. He is enthusiastic about contextualized technology, but technology, in and of itself, is uninteresting to him, whether the focus of discussion is pervasive computing or buildings.


The copy is pristine. I found no grammatical errors, typos, or other flaws. With the exception of those occasions when McCullough indulged in an overly pedantic style, the book was not difficult to read. The more informed I was in the background material to which McCullough referred, the more I got out of his arguments.


The illustrations are few, small, and while not completely gratuitous, add only minimal value. The illustrations vary from black-and-white photographs of artifacts such as an airplane, a building, and a mobile phone, to pencil-sketch caricatures of a concept, to minimalist diagrams.

The illustrations are neutral—minimally distracting and minimally supportive of McCullough’s points. They serve mainly to break up the pages and provide visual relief amidst long expositions.

Book Design

The book is a small paperback with a minimalist design. Printed on bright white paper, with clean typography—the body text is in Sabon; section headings, in Kievit—the book’s layout is academic and modern, with good margins, chapter titles on each page, unobtrusive page numbers, and good leading.


Digital Ground is a challenging read. McCullough’s academic style, wide-ranging references, and casual bridging of seemingly disparate topics all challenge the intellect of the reader. Equally challenging is the content itself. McCullough interweaves interaction design and architecture intimately as design practices, most notably in the context of pervasive computing. McCullough’s vision of integrated digital and built landscapes challenges us to rethink our assumptions about both interaction design and architectural design. 

Senior Manager, User Experience, at Home Depot Quote Center

Principal at Phase II

Portland, Oregon, USA

Leo FrishbergWith over 30 years of experience in design management and design—as both a bricks-and-mortar architect and a UX designer—Leo drives highly differentiated and innovative solutions. At The Home Depot QuoteCenter, Leo leads a dynamic team of UX professionals in delivering engaging experiences for Home Depot associates. Previously, as Product Design Manager at Intel, he led UX teams on mission-critical programs. As Principal UX Architect for Tektronix’s Logic Analyzer product line, he filed several patents and spearheaded product vision and definition for the next generation of instruments. Leo is a Certified Scrum Product Owner. Over the past 20 years, he has served as Program Chair, Chair, Vice Chair, and Treasurer on the board for CHIFOO (Computer Human Interaction Forum of Oregon), the Portland Chapter of SIGCHI.  Read More

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