The Internet of Things and the rise of planetary computerization: How environmental sensing technologies multiply rather than consolidate versions of the planet.

Reader in sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London

Planetary computerization—and the making of a computational planet—are terms and concepts that now occupy considerable attention in media studies and environmental theory and practice. Yet these developments have been underway since at least the post-war context, since renderings of the planet as expressed through communication technologies can be found in works as far flung as the writings of Arthur Clarke, to Marshall McLuhan’s observations about the birth of ecology with the launch of Sputnik, to Barbara Ward’s discussions of Spaceship Earth emerging through telecommunication technologies—as well as Félix Guattari’s mapping of the possibilities of “planetary computerization.” More contemporary works continue to revisit these themes, including the Haus der Kulturen der Welt’s (HKW) exhibition, The Whole Earth, which considers how particular cultural practices and environmentalisms emerge by revisiting the often communication-based imaginings of the Earth from the Apollo missions onward. In these diverse approaches, the earth appears as a highly interconnected techno-political artefact that is nevertheless under stress.

Why do I begin with this discussion of multiple versions of computational planets? Because while the planetary is often a focus exactly because the Earth is seen to be under considerable environmental stress, one recurring response to the planet in crisis is to propose that more monitoring and more data, particularly through environmental sensor networks, will help to address environmental problems and make the planet more sustainable. In Program Earth, I take up considerations about the planetary and its environments by addressing the rise of ubiquitous environmental computing. In current imaginings of ubiquitous environmental sensing, technology companies often put forward a vision of the Earth as brimming with sensors, where every environmental process and activity will be monitored for ideal performance and responsiveness. Tens of billions, if not hundreds of billions, of sensors are proposed to be deployed in order to ensure earthly systems are optimized. At multiple levels, sensors are presented as a solution to the problem of the planet in crisis, from monitoring global systems to enabling citizens to become more effective sensors and participating nodes in these systems.

At multiple levels, sensors are presented as a solution to the problem
of the planet in crisis.
Images from IBM’s Internet of Things videos, Part 1 and Part 2.

The Internet of Things,” one of many promotional videos developed by IBM to convey the technological revolution that ubiquitous environmental computing is meant to usher in, presents a version of interconnectivity where the planet has effectively “grown a central nervous system” through the rise of environmental sensors, to the point where there are more things than people connected to the Internet. Here is an intelligent planet that can coordinate the flow of traffic, facilitate the timing of commutes, report blockages in water mains, and balance energy grids. As the video narrator notes, in this coordinated vision of the Internet of Things, “you could look at the planet as an information creation and transmission system. The universe was hearing its information, but we weren’t, but increasingly now we can.” Sensors are meant to allow us to tap into planetary intelligence, and to augment and intervene within these systems in order to realize new efficiencies and insights.

Perhaps in contrast to the usual visual representations of the planet as a fragile object viewed from the distance of outer space, these computational articulations of the Earth are instead focused on connecting up processes and events in order to maximize earthly operations. Here is a planet—a programmed earth—where data and networks that have always already existed in a seemingly natural way can be better understood and harnessed through the unique insights provided by environmental sensors and actuators.

Often these imaginings of environmental sensors present a unified planet operating as one intelligent uber-organism. But rather than argue that new “whole” or unified earths are emerging through these computational technologies, I instead demonstrate how there are a proliferation of sensing technologies, datasets, networks, and practices, which might attempt to realize new types of interoperability but which multiply rather than consolidate versions of the planet. The “program” of Program Earth is then not a singular script or code executing a command-and-control logic on environmental systems. Instead, Program Earth asks how specific sensor occasions demonstrate the splintering and multiple ways in which these environmental computation technologies take hold.

How do sensing technologies connect humans and nonhumans,
along with their environments?

Within this focus on particular modes of sensing, the question also emerges as to how sensing technologies connect humans and more-than-humans, along with their environments. Here, citizen sensing is a key way in which this question is taken up. How do “citizens” and citizen-sensing practices become configured along with sensor technologies and processes? There is no shortage of examples of citizen-sensing projects underway that take up low-cost environmental sensing technologies to create evidence about air and water pollution, as well as document the activity of organisms and intervene within urban ecologies. Along with the proliferation of sensor technologies that are remaking versions of the “planetary,” here is a new set of practices for monitoring environments and generating evidence, and for engaging with environmental and political matters as data-based problems.

This is an area of research that is ongoing, since I am conducting a research project, “Citizen Sense,” which focuses more centrally on the question of citizen-sensing practices that emerge with the rise of low-cost computational sensing technologies. The project asks: What new political practices do these technologies enable? And how do they potentially limit environmental engagement to data-focused modalities?

Environmental sensing technologies, and the intensification of planetary computerization, generate particular ways of encountering and relating to the Earth as under stress and in crisis. It is the specific environments and entities that materialize in the process of this planetary computerization to which Program Earth attends, while also asking how these new technological arrangements might be reworked and rerouted toward less deterministic and more open-ended engagements.


Jennifer Gabrys is a reader in sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. She is author of Program Earth: Environmental Sensing Technology and the Making of a Computational Planet (out this month) and Digital Rubbish: A Natural History of Electronics.

Program Earth is a tantalizing account of digital, citizen-sensing worlds in the making.”
—Kevin McHugh, Arizona State University

“Impressive and original, Program Earth is not just concerned with the collection and dissemination of data, but also—and more crucially—with the transformation of these data and with their effects.”
—Steven Shaviro, author of The Universe of Things

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