Jennifer Gabrys


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

Cover Interview of December 28, 2016

The wide angle

One of the key objectives in Program Earth is to rework theories of sensing by decentering the human subject that is meant to be the key locus through which sensation is understood.

To do this, I draw on philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead to draw attention to the environments of sense in and through which sensing subjects concresce and operate. Whitehead’s notion of the subject-superject is one critical angle for how I engage with sensors not merely as devices sensing and generating data about environments “out there.” Instead, I suggest that sensors present ways of “tuning” in to environments, where the conditions of tuning are also distributed through environments.

Alongside Whitehead, I draw on the work of philosopher and engineer Gilbert Simondon and his important work on the milieus in and through which technologies form, stabilize and operate. For both of these thinkers, the subject is not a pre-formed entity for verifying and validating experiences through a primarily cognitive register. Instead, subjects are always in formation with the environments and other entities with which they are in relation.

With these two theoretical alignments, I am able to shift my attention to consider how sensors and environments are co-constituted, along with the more-than-humans, concerned citizens, and multiple other entities that populate these technological worlds.

In this register, I am then also informed by a rich array of feminist technoscience, from Isabelle Stengers to Donna Haraway, Lucy Suchman and Kim TallBear, who draw attention to the ways in which the formation of particular socio-technical worlds always expresses political commitments with distinct and uneven effects. Stengers’ work is particularly important in this regard, since while she engages thoroughly with the neutral metaphysics that Whitehead develops, she also attends to the ethical and political consequences of committing to the formation of particular worlds.

So when environmental sensors are promoted as a technology for enhancing and advancing the city—as a smart city—we might ask with the help of these particular thinkers: Why has the “problem” of the city been developed in this way? How has this distinct technological framing of the city overlooked or sidestepped other urban problems? Who is able to “act” upon the problem of the city when it is understood to require the installation of pervasive sensing technologies? Who and what are not accounted for in these figurations and worldings—and how might these figurations be developed otherwise?