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Sensing an Experimental Forest: Processing Environments and Distributing Relations

Gabrys, Jennifer. 2012. “Sensing an Experimental Forest: Processing Environments and Distributing Relations.” Computational Culture (2). http://computationalculture.net/article/sensing-an-experimental-forest-processing-environments-and-distributing-relations

p.2: The use of wireless sensor networks to study environmental phenomena is an increasingly prevalent practice. Sensing projects encompass studies of seismic activity, the health of forests, maps of contaminant flow, as well as the tracking of organisms from dragonflies and turtles to seals and elephants, which provide indicative sensor data of environmental processes. -- Highlighted mar 22, 2014

p.2: Situated within the context of these ubiquitous computing developments, this paper specifically focuses on the distinct forms of sensing that emerge in relation to monitoring environmental phenomena. One key advantage that sensor systems are meant to provide is the ability to understand the complex interactions and relations within ecosystems in greater detail. Ecological relations emerge in higher resolution because sensors monitor and make available aspects of environmental processes as they unfold over time rather than as more discrete moments; and because more data are available for generating models of complex interactions -- Highlighted mar 22, 2014

p.2: In what ways do distributed sensor technologies contribute to new sensory processes by shifting the relations, entities, occasions, and interpretive registers of sensing? How do the interpretative practices that emerge in experimental environmental sensing then inform environmental matters of concern? And what are the implications of these experimental environmental sensing arrangements as they migrate into policy, and as they inform participatory sensing processes? -- Highlighted mar 22, 2014

p.2: Environmental monitoring can bring with it a sense of increased responsibility, and the commonly used phrase, ‘all eyes on earth,’ is a way of articulating the watchful concern that sensors are seen to embody and operationalize through the continual observation of environmental processes. -- Highlighted mar 22, 2014

p.3: If we take seriously Whitehead’s suggestion that sensing entities emerge through experiences and that they are inseparable from occasions of experience, then how do experimental environmental sensor arrangements mobilize distinct sensing practices that are generative of new environmental abstractions and entities? -- Highlighted mar 22, 2014

p.3: These imagined and actual transformations involve extending computational capacities to environments through sensors, where objects and phenomena are transformed into sensor data and made manageable through those same computational architectures. -- Highlighted mar 22, 2014

p.3: As with many similar and subsequent sensor deployments, this project generated more detailed data on previously unobserved ecological phenomena and relationships, while also providing a testbed for experimenting with the system architecture of sensor networks. The ecological relationships observed—or sensed—are in many ways coupled with the capacities of sensor networks, which similarly are adapted to and ‘learn’ from the processes under study. The ‘tuning’ of sensor networks may then take place not just between scientists and devices, but also between devices, code and ecological processes. -- Highlighted mar 22, 2014

p.4: Just as sensing systems are proliferating, numerous attempts are then underway to amalgamate and make sense of the many forms of data—a key ‘cyberinfrastructure’ task—since the multiple formats and provenances of data may mean that they are rendered meaningless for ongoing use and study if not consistently handled. -- Highlighted mar 22, 2014

p.4: technology companies working individually or often in collaboration with universities are developing a whole range of sensor network systems. These projects range from Nokia’s ‘Sensor Planet,’ to IBM’s ‘A Smarter Planet,’ HP Labs’ ‘Central Nervous System for the Earth’ (CeNSE), and Cisco’s ‘Planetary Skin’ (in collaboration with NASA, the University of Minnesota, Imperial College, and others). -- Highlighted mar 22, 2014

p.4: Many of these sensing projects raise ethical issues related to surveillance, while still other projects are enabling new forms of resource exploitation. The project of monitoring and managing environmental relationships continues to be a way in which the governmentality—and even environmentality—of sensor systems unfolds, where sensor capacities may point toward particular relations to manage or sustain in distinct ways. -- Highlighted mar 22, 2014

p.4: But from a Whitehead-influenced perspective, it could be argued that sense data are less descriptive of pre-existing conditions, and more productive of new environments, entities and occasions of sense. The ways in which phenomena are delineated as sense data are one part of this operation of becoming sensible, but the ways in which sensory monitoring gives rise to new formations of sense within and through data and computational modes of relating as well as across humans, more-than-humans and environments also mobilize distinct distributions of sense. Since sensor networks are seen to offer distinct insights into the complex interactions and processes within environments, then the ways in which these relationships are joined up, articulated, and transformed into new observational capacities matters. -- Highlighted mar 22, 2014

p.5: Sensors that map in real-time a greater density of ecological relations could be seen as an attempt to work through a processual approach to environments, by focusing on interactions and even multiple modes of perception. At the same time, to identify a phenomenon as constituting sense data is to make a commitment to distinct ‘forms of process,’ so that environmental processes are selected and concretized in those forms. The process of selecting sense data involves capturing a moment in time, an ‘instant,’ that is then re-sutured with other data to form a pattern of any given ecological process. While approximating a more process-based and even real-time monitoring of environments, sensors are also productive of practices of selecting and interrelating discrete observations in order to arrive at an understanding of environmental process. The selection of temperature, vibration, light levels, humidity, and other measurements across primarily physical, although to some extent chemical and biological criteria, informs the instants that are sensed, the forms that are documented, and the processes that might be reconfigured. -- Highlighted mar 22, 2014

p.6: As Hayles suggests, environmental modes of computation—RFID in her analysis—raise questions about the effects of ‘creating an animate environment with agential and communicative powers.’ Such technologies allow us to move toward ‘a more processual, relational and accurate view of embodied human action in complex environments.’ -- Highlighted mar 22, 2014

p.8: This ‘new mechanistic understanding of the environment’ involves a near-future commitment to developing a ‘critical infrastructure resource for society’ in the form of detailed environmental monitoring. -- Highlighted mar 22, 2014

p.8: The expression and agitation of environments, which as Whitehead suggests ‘seep’ into all things, also turn up in and transform the sensing practices and technologies that monitor them. Instruments for capturing sense data are here specifically honed toward disturbance, as environmental change becomes more of a matter of concern within ecological study. At the same time, disturbancedetection rather than observation of norms begins to inform what counts as relevant sense data. -- Highlighted mar 22, 2014

p.9: Sensor networks provide the basis for monitoring and acting upon environments, and yet the data and connections made across sensors are selectively captured and joined up, and are also subject to failure and incompatibility of data. Different data standards, classification techniques, and dispersed practices inform the content and processing of data-spaces—a topic that Geoffrey Bowker among others has discussed at length. Databases and data spaces are more than collections of objectively observable facts, but are embedded within and performed through infrastructures of sciences, governance and public outreach. -- Highlighted mar 22, 2014

p.12: On the one hand, as Whitehead suggests, that which counts as form or data is what endures within a ‘process of composition,’ which is expressive of ‘historic character.’ What counts as empirical requires acts of ‘interpretation,’ but also describes a concrescence that continues to have the force of natural fact. Drawing on Locke, Whitehead notes, ‘the problem of perception and the problem of power are one and the same, at least so far as perception is reduced to mere prehension of actual entities.’ -- Highlighted mar 22, 2014

p.13: In a different way, Foucault indicates through his discussions on the milieu that sensory arrangements are expressive of distributions of power, and involve making ongoing commitments to relations and ways of life. Sensory processes that occur across subjects are then suggestive of aesthetico-political relations and possibilities for participation. -- Highlighted mar 22, 2014