The Sensor Society: Invisible Infrastructure

So much about the Internet age has turned out to be vexing–a far cry from my enthusiasm a generation ago, shared by many nerds, for a utopian future of connectivity and a library of one’s dreams.

“I would not open windows into men's souls.” — Attributed to Queen Elizabeth IHard to know where to start with the disappointments and fears, but one that particularly nags is the feeling that we are building (with our eyes closed and tacit consent) an infrastructure that monitors our every move, encasing every one of us in a personal surveillance state, in return for the convenience of carrying a connected device everywhere we go.

Australian Prof. Mark Burdon has termed this the “Sensor Society,” the notion that passively, without our knowledge or consent, and for unknown purposes, everything we do becomes raw data for commercial discovery (and possibly for government snooping). This follows inevitably from the “always on/always connected” world, but is it too high a price to pay?

The entire interview is worth reading, but herewith a few bracing bits:

Q: What are the implications if sensors completely permeate society?

A: Well, it’s not necessarily just about the complete permeation of sensors. Rather, the greater implications regard the emergence of pervasive and always on forms of data collection. The relationship between sensors, the data they produce, and ourselves is important to understand.

For example, sensors don’t watch and listen. Rather, they detect and record. So sensors do not rely on direct and conscious registration on the part of those being monitored. In fact, the opposite is the case. We need to be passive and unaware of the sensing capabilities of our devices for the sensors to be an effective measurer of our activity and our environments.

Our relationship with our devices as sensors is consequently a loaded one. We actively interact with our devices, but we need to be passively unaware of the sensors within our devices. The societal implications are significant—it could mean that everything we do is collected, recorded and analysed without us consciously being aware that such activities are taking place because collection is so embedded in daily life.

Q: How would you recommend someone learn more about the impact of living in a sensor society?

A: Look at your everyday devices in a different way. Behind the device and the sensor are vast and imperceptible, invisible infrastructures. Infrastructures of collection enable the explosion of collectible data and infrastructures of prediction enable understanding and thus give purpose to sensors. Otherwise, sensor-generated data without an analytical framework to understand it is just a mountain of unintelligible data.

The sensor society, therefore, redirects us towards the hidden technological processes that make data collection capture, storage, and processing possible. This, in turn, highlights the importance of understanding relations of ownership and control of sensors and the infrastructures in which sensors operate. So when you’re at home with your devices, realize that you are not alone and just think about those invisible infrastructures that are also present with you. Then question to ask then is: What data is being collected, by whom and for what purpose?

Our metadata, ourselves… how are we ever to be left alone? He’s got a good TedX talk as well.

“[The framers] sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions and their sensations. They conferred, as against the government, the right to be let alone-the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.”  — Louis Brandeis

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