Jennifer Gabrys


On her book Program Earth: Environmental Sensing Technology and the Making of a Computational Planet

Cover Interview of December 27, 2016

In a nutshell

Program Earth addresses the rise of sensor technologies for monitoring environments. Sensors have been promoted within digital technology spaces as devices that are meant to become ubiquitous and connect up to enable new orders of efficiency, speed and environmental management.

However, while these sales pitches are now familiar to many people through Internet of Things applications, from smart refrigerators to energy meters, many of the applications for sensors are unfolding throughout wider environments, from smart cities to transport infrastructures, as well as environmental sensing for air quality, wildlife migration and citizen engagement.

Program Earth asks: Why are these technologies proliferating now? What new environments and subjects do they generate? And what practices and experiences do they enable?

I look at three distinct areas where environmental sensors are in extensive use, including “Wild Sensing,” “Pollution Sensing,” and “Urban Sensing.” These concrete examples of sensors at work traverse an experimental sensor forest in California, a biological field station in Finnish Lapland, and a smart urban zone in London, among other sensorized sites.

Across these instances of sensors at work, I consider how these technologies are generating distinct ways of programming environments and environmental relations. By “programming” I am referring less to a process of “controlling” environments, and more to the extended ways in which computational technologies inform and materialize the subjects, environments and relations that are sensed. In order to be monitored, environments and entities have to be operationalized in particular ways.

But at the same time, these monitoring programs often generate unexpected results. For instance, environmental sensors are often taken up in citizen sensing engagements, where the monitoring of air pollution, energy use and more is meant to make participants more informed environmental citizens. Yet these programs often do not go according to plan, and the collection of sensor data gives rise to a much different array of political and social effects.

In this way, I suggest that sensor technologies are co-constitutive of environments, have environmental effects, and also in-form environmentalist practices, but often in unpredictable ways.