Computational Culture

a journal of software studies

Issue Six information

    Author
    Ulrik Ekman

    Affiliation
    University of Copenhagen

    Publication Date
    28th November 2017

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“Speculative Environmentality”, review of Program Earth: Environmental Sensing Technology and the Making of a Computational Planet

Jennifer Gabrys
Program Earth: Environmental Sensing Technology and the Making of a Computational Planet
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2016
ISBN 978-0-8166-9312-2
xii+357 pages

 

A certain wonder at human attempts in the last century to explore outer space (Sputnik; Armstrong’s landing on the moon) might well be part of your historical or long term memory, and perhaps this wonder has been reawakened by the recent arrival on Earth of the visual data from the New Horizons NASA spacecraft that travelled 5.5 billion kilometers to have its Ralph/LEISA imager provide a sense of the complexity of Pluto and its system of moons. If some of this wonder is intact, perhaps because of historical and spatial distance, this may not be the case with respect to the kinds of extensive and intensified modes of information technological registration that are closer. You might simply take for granted today that space stations and a large set of satellites scan the Earth and ground both a vast range of communications and all mobile mediations relying on the Global Positioning System. Likewise, it may be rare that you stop in your current everyday cultural tracks, sensing the strangeness of a planet woven into multiplicities of wireless networks as well as all the backbone cabling supportive of the decentralized and distributed network of networks called the Internet.

Very likely, today this type of wonder is most often activated just briefly and in encounters with ongoing inventions. Three tourists who stop to wait in front of a gate to an unmanned national park, informed by a small display that the maximum number of human visitors permitted during birds’ breeding season are currently present, may briefly wonder how this knowledge of visitors was gained. A driver on her way to work in the morning who is led through an unfamiliar maze of city side streets by corresponding digital road signs and messages from the car GPS may briefly wonder how the two kinds of systems were able to coordinate their real-time sense of ongoing road work and accidents. When a media art installation embedded in a city square lets interactive video portraits appear in front of busy passers-by and has them stop and play, this may be accompanied by some speculation on their part as regards how they were followed in advance and chosen as interactants. A male executive returning home after a very long day at work basically does not notice that lighting in his smart home is dimmed and that the vacuum cleaner stops, but he may well briefly wonder how it is that his entry does not spur pop songs as the day before but Bach’s cello sonatas.

All of these phenomena cross sensation and sensors, actions and actuators, human and information technological context-awareness and do so in interesting ways. Jennifer Gabrys’ recent book-length study, Program Earth, has as one of its major merits a remarkable capacity to kindle and rekindle the readers’ sense of wonder at such crossings, but mostly as environmental sensing writ large and often a good deal beyond or before a strictly human focus. Gabrys’ book is good a having one wonder what may happen at the intersections of environmental sensing technologies and forms of life and objecthood at various scales — from the entities of an outer space universe through those of the stratosphere, the air, the seas, and landscapes to those in the environments of plants, animals, and human beings.

Program Earth inscribes itself in a contemporary global and sociocultural context empirically and theoretically marked by the emergence of the third wave of information technology in an expanded field, after the mainframe computer and the personal computer. The key issues of the book, questions concerning the implications of having the planet ‘programmed’ by multitudes of networks of sensors and actuators and their associated software systems, obviously present themselves as part and parcel of the unfolding of network societies in their second phase which increasingly draw on out-of-the-box computing as well as the sociocultural and experiential horizon of a virtually and physically mobile citizenry.[1]

The planetary sensate and active ‘programming’ addressed by Gabrys is a development not least characterized by the ways in which computing moves on from existing primarily as distinctly recognizable units so as to be multiplicitously and pervasively integrated into our living and working environments and perhaps altogether invisibly embedded in our life world and life form. In the broader sense suggested by the book title, the processes of ‘program earth’ involve all the environmental, animate, and human formations co-developing with ‘ubiquitous computing.’ The latter is thus to be understood both on a well-neigh universal and planetary environmental plane and on the more mundane or down-to-earth environmental plane. The title phrase, ‘program earth,’ hints at and touches upon ongoing invention of a cosmos of sensors and sensation, actions and actuators, but it primarily addresses worldly technical and socio-cultural thrusts to integrate and/or embed computing pervasively, to have sensate and active information processing thoroughly integrated with or embedded into environments, objects and bodies, forms of life, and everyday human activities.

Gabrys’ point of entry into this development via the materiality and processes of networks of sensors and actuators has the very considerable advantage that this enables the book to begin addressing and articulating what is today for most human beings a thoroughly embedded matter — technical material infrastructures, invisible and inaccessible software code, processes and effects left culturally unarticulated and technologically unconscious. At the very least, Gabrys’ book is valuable because it points at and perhaps begins to change the fact that the vast majority of human citizens in current network societies just go on living with ubiquitous computing as something that does not concern, or only marginally and momentarily concerns, engaging consciously with applications and devices operating in various environments. Perhaps Program Earth manages to irritate a bit a status quo in which one just keeps on engaging with multiple computational devices and systems simultaneously during more or less ordinary activities, without necessarily being aware of doing so and without considering the environmental implications. The book certainly succeeds in presenting a more environmental, expanded, and intensified idea of computation, letting the readers get a feel for a great many networks of sensors and actuators and software processes that adhere to something like Mark Weiser’s vision of a myriad of small, inexpensive, robust, networked information processing devices, perhaps mobile but certainly distributed at all scales throughout everyday life and culture, most often turned towards distinctly mundane, commonsensical, and commonplace ends (Weiser 1991, Weiser and Brown 1997, Weiser, Gold, and Brown 1999).

Gabrys’ book not least has a laudable material and empirical dimension to its concern with the interlinkage of the environmental and the information technological, including no little effort in several kinds of fieldwork — across the arts and sciences and in a variety of places on Earth. Hence Program Earth begins to fill quite a lacuna since no major transdisciplinary technocultural research project has so far been undertaken with respect to the de facto development of natural milieux, life forms, and urban formations interwoven with networks of sensors and actuators. Perhaps this book is not comprehensive enough, not entirely global, not sufficiently technically savvy, just as it may not make any really substantial claims on sociological and cultural anthropological significance in the empirical, quantitative sense. Nonetheless, Gabrys’ work makes quite some inroads on a vast technocultural field that has so far remained a somewhat blind spot.

It is quite something to begin tracing what leads towards urban formations with networks of environmental sensors and actuators which seek to control weather, floods, land movements, pollution, and noise; which deploy systems for dynamic collection and processing of waste; which implement smart grids and meters for energy production and usage; which live and move with intelligent traffic control and transport systems; which increasingly insert systems and central control rooms for coordinated emergency response, surveillance, and predictive policing; which work politically and culturally with city management systems along with e-government systems and citizen information services; which operate with infrastructurally integrated building management systems, smart homes with a variety of app-controlled appliances. Add to this what Gabrys manages to depict in terms of networks of sensors and actuators coupled with environments of climate, air, water, plants, and animals and you begin to get an idea of the empirical reach and complexity of the project at stake.

Program Earth is signed by a researcher now working in a department of sociology (Goldsmiths, UK), but also one with prior experience in design and environment research as well as communication studies and literature. This volume is preceded by the publication by the author of Digital Rubbish, a material-political analysis of electronic waste, and by Gabrys’ collaboration with Gay Hawkins and Mike Michael on the interdisciplinary anthology titled Accumulation: The Material Politics of Plastic. In particular, significant parts of Program Earth draw upon Gabrys’ experience as a research fellow involved in projects concerning the culture of cities and digital cities and as head of a European Research Council project addressing questions of citizens and sensing via theoretical and practice-based investigation of environments, material processes, and digital technologies.

Program Earth appears with University of Minnesota Press as volume 49 in the interesting, useful, and enjoyable Electronic Mediations series, founded by Mark Poster and now edited by N. Katherine Hayles, Peter Krapp, Rita Raley, and Samuel Weber. True to the quality of this series, the format and stylization of Program Earth help make it a good read, and the book comes with a good selection of images and illustrations, a full bibliography, as well as something that every so often goes missing in book publications today: a reasonably detailed and well-organized index.

Apart from providing an introduction, Gabrys has chosen to structure the book in three main parts with three chapters each, roughly equal in length: “Wild Sensing” (29-110), “Pollution Sensing” (111-184), and “Urban Sensing” (185-266). The first part is mainly concerned with ecological applications of sensor networks that have been developed to track flora and fauna activity as well as habitats, but also sketches the ways in which such sensor technologies have moved out of natural settings towards applications with more citizen-focused and urban foci. In the first chapter, Gabrys draws upon fieldwork observations to suggest that environmental sensor arrangements help generate specific new sensing practices and corresponding new environmental abstractions and entities, which influence practices such as “citizen sensing.” Chapter 2 presents work on two webcams monitoring mosses and spills and attempts to demonstrate how such moving images now not only operate as sensor data subject to visual analytics but also tend to draw citizens into distinct practices of watching and reporting. The third and final chapter of Part One looks as the ways in which migration tracking sensors provide new data about the movement of organisms, all the while tracing the environments and environmental relations in and through which organisms are living.

“Pollution Sensing,” Part Two, addresses the use of environmental sensing technologies to monitor pollution of the arctic climate, not least by carbon (Chapter 4), of the seas by garbage patches of microplastics (Chapter 5), and of the air in cities by sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and dioxide (Chapter 6). Part Two thus continues the treatment in Part One of ongoing monitoring of natural environments, but it also focuses on the ways in which sensors are used as parts of creative practice and “citizen-sensing projects,” in cities especially.

In the third part of the book, the reader encounters three chapters concerned with the role of sensor technologies in recent smart city projects and proposals, addressing such issues as urban sustainability and environmental politics, intelligent infrastructures, and “citizen-sensing applications.” Chapter 7 focuses on the role of sensor networks in relation to the distribution of governance and power through the new milieux and environments of smart cities. In Chapter 8, Gabrys considers the kinds of participation enabled in DIY digital urbanism projects, not least in order to indicate the ways in which the “idiot” as a citizen figure may be said to function as a noncompliant digital operator that does not participate as intended. The currently emergent smart cities, their digital infrastructures, and their sensor networks arguably include a speculative dimension, and Chapter 9 inquires whether and then how this dimension could be said to enable distinct types of “withness” in these new urban environments.

Gabrys’ concluding remarks towards the end of the book in the main widen this speculative dimension, attempting a reconsideration of planetary computerization as an expanding development of sensors networks which could be approached as generative of experimental worlds and speculative practices.

This structuration of the contents of Program Earth reveals, among other things, that human culture, urban citizenry, and citizen sensing are key concerns and remain a focus throughout all three parts of the book. This already begins to hint at a tension, ambivalence, and somewhat undecided pull of forces in the book between the cosmological and the mundanely planetary, between technology and human culture. For the relatively clear primacy granted to human culture, citizens, and to the urban as their currently primary mode of environmental development, is somewhat at odds with the relatively clear focus on granting this book a very wide technological and environmental scope: the seemingly cosmological or at least global environmental reach of Gabrys’ project. It is particularly at odds with the frequent deployment by Gabrys of the term or concept “more-than-human” to suggest ways in which relations of environmental information technologies problematize anthropocentrism and a cultural anthropological framework.

The voicing of cosmological and global environmental concerns undertaken by Gabrys is sympathetic and suggestive but it is for the most part leading to a hypostatized and overblown treatment marked by a great many generalizations which are only backed by relatively few particular observations and concrete analyses. I found myself nodding in agreement several times when reading Gabrys’ interesting evocations of ways in which information technologies generate and maintain environmental relationalities that are not so much reducible by an anthropocentric approach as they pave new or “more-than-human” ways for humans to enact and engage with, sense and make sense of environments. At the same time, however, I found myself shaking my head. This is in part because Gabrys’ text is doing less strong decentering and non-anthropocentric work on man and technics than what one finds in existing critical treatments of posthumanism (Hayles 1999, Lenoir 2003, Wolfe 2000), object studies (Candlin and Guins 2009), actor-network theory (Dressler 2008, Farias and Bender 2010, Latour 1992, Latour 2005, Law and Hassard 1999), and science and technology studies (Bijker and Law 1992, Bijker 1995, Bijker, Hughes, and Pinch 2012, Hackett 2008, Latour and Woolgar 1986, Latour 1987, 2004, MacKenzie and Wajcman 1985, MacKenzie 1996). Partly, it is because the potential or de jure problematization of anthropocentrism and the Anthropocene is somewhat undercut by Gabrys’ own indirect but de facto reprivileging of a human cultural approach in the book as a whole.

Perhaps some of all this is due to the difficulties Gabrys runs into when signaling a decisive departure from any phenomenological approach while at the same time clearly wishing to draw on some kind of grasp of experience and action in an expanded field — technical sensing and actuation not least, but certainly also human experience and practices. Gabrys’ way of drawing on Whitehead’s process philosophy solves some of this, but the reader will find many passages in the book testifying to the continued survival of something very much like a centered and intentionally conscious subject, including the author’s “I.” This left me wondering whether Gabrys’ work would have become stronger if it had been molded by a more thorough and explicit consideration and tempering of this very resolute showdown with earlier phenomenological work. It would seem that consideration of speculatively realist engagements with the end of phenomenology would have been productive, given Gabrys’ alliance with the thought of Whitehead (Sparrow 2014). Perhaps Brian Massumi’s efforts to endow Deleuzian thought with something like a concept of experience would be of interest to Gabrys, over and above her parenthetical use of insights from Semblance and Event (Massumi 2002, 2003, 2011). Perhaps relatively recent efforts to undertake immanent scientific, technological, ‘objective,’ biological, and social complications of existential and embodied phenomenology would be interesting things to read and incorporate side by side with this. Possible sources would include, for example, the efforts in Naturalizing Phenomenology (Petitot et al. 1999), Renaud Barbaras’ contemporary deepening of the work of Merleau-Ponty (Barbaras 2004, 2005), Bernhard Waldenfels’ work on embodied attention, “Phänomenotechnik,” and the alterity of the social, the biological, and the things (Waldenfels 2002, 2004, 2011, 2015). Then, since they directly address the issue of sensation and sensibility in an epoch with ubiquitous computing, and since they begin to complicate a phenomenology of the body by drawing on both Jan Patocka and Whitehead’s thought, one would think that Mark B. Hansen’s publications concerning a phenomenology of objective manifestation, a worldly sensibility, and an asubjectal subjectivity or superjectivity should offer interesting discussion partners for Gabrys’ project (Hansen 2013, 2015, 2016).

Generally speaking, readers are likely to find themselves raising questions with respect to Gabrys’ approach to notions of technology and human culture as well as their interrelation. To some extent, such questions arise because Gabrys does not always try to define her key terms or concepts, or because several approaches towards such definitions are taken. Both ‘technology’ and ‘human’ are thus left somewhat suspended semantically, and several kinds of sense could be made of these based on Gabrys’ text, just as their interrelation is not a simple matter to decide.

Program Earth does not propose a simple affirmation of technology as a tool, as a freely used means to an end, a liberating extension of man and human culture. Nor does it simply affirm some variant of a technological determinism according to which no little bit of human being and culture is organized, governed, and determined by technology. Clearly, Gabrys’ general effort to sketch sensor technologies as ubiquitously operative in, with, and of environments rather relies upon some kind of notion of relational dynamics between humans, technologies, and environments. Hence her reiterated attempts to delineate “technogeographies” that connect technology, nature, and people. Hence also her attempts to suggest ways in which humans enact and live out, live in, and live with technological environments — just as technologies generate new environments and environmental relations while offering a potential form of life to their entities (inanimate objects, plants, animals, and people).

This dynamic and processual relationality could in principle be pursued as a matter of symmetrical co-implication and co-development on a flat, immanent plane of human and technological multiplicities. However, Gabrys ends up primarily operating with one of the two asymmetries available. This is an asymmetry that de facto favors environmental and technogeographical relations unfolding in accord with a very recognizable human orchestration of the information technologies in networks of sensors and actuators. This might leave readers with the impression that Gabrys in the main thinks of the anthropos as a relatively free or liberating homo faber. This is the primary operation undertaken, but it is not alone, nor is it entirely consistent.

Readers will also encounter a number of passages across the book which simply accentuate the presencing of new and indeterminate environmental relational potentials. In that case, readers are likely to entertain for a while the idea that Gabrys might be subscribing to some extent to some version of human-technical relativism.

Alternatively, sometimes the reader will be led towards reconsideration of asymmetries of a technologically overdetermining kind. This happens in Chapter 7, for example, in the treatment of smart city proposals. Here Gabrys draws especially on Michel Foucault’s concepts of governmentality and environmentality (Foucault, Ewald, et al. 2004, Foucault et al. 2008, Foucault, Senellart, et al. 2004) in order to diagnose “an urban computational dispositif, or apparatus, which performs material-political and environmental relations across speculative designs, technological imaginaries, urban development plans, democratic engagements through participatory media, and networked infrastructures.” (Program Earth 186) It is a little difficult not to see a remainder of technological overdetermination in Gabrys’ quite interesting reconsideration of the ways in which smart city environmental technologies, qua spatial modes of governance, might alter material-political distributions of power and possible modes of subjectification, in this case environmental articulation of modes of citizenship via distribution and feedback of monitoring and urban data practices. (187) In that case, although Gabrys does not spell this out, one might not be all that far from granting technology the kind of key role envisaged by earlier thinkers of soft and hard determinisms from Veblen through Marx to Jacques Ellul and Neil Postman.

I think Gabrys’ book is important because it is one among precious few research efforts that manage to trace a key dimension of a history of the present to do with the meshing of the sociocultural and ubiquitous computing in network societies. However, the treatment of the dynamic and developmental interrelation of human culture, technology, and environment is rather uneven empirically and appears not quite consistently thought and theorized. As regards this issue, I am left with a double impression: to some extent this is because a more thorough engagement with technology as a problem does not take place; to some extent it is because the engagement with technology takes place through a set of thinkers whose differences tend to be elided in a too eclectically synthesizing fashion.

The former is really a pity, not least because a critical or reflexive engagement with some of the relevant recent research in this area would have strengthened Program Earth considerably. For example, I would very much have liked to see Gabrys’ departure from such a book as the first volume of Bernard Stiegler’s Technics and Time (Stiegler 1998). This is not only because this text has a much more advanced theoretical treatment of temporalization, historical development, invention, and evolution, which are relatively mute concerns in Program Earth.[2] It is also because an encounter with this text would allow readers to see how Gabrys would go to work on the other side of those treatments of technology and man in the earlier work done by Bertrand Gille and Andre Leroi-Gourhan which led Stiegler towards his early reconsideration of Gilbert Simondon’s thought of human and technical individuation (Gille 1986, Leroi-Gourhan 1943, 1945, Simondon 1964, 1989a, b). For example, given that some passages in Program Earth seem very close and similar, some quite distant and dissimilar, it would have been interesting to see how Gabrys would wish to differentiate her thought of technics from Gille and Leroi-Gourhan both, quite apart from Stiegler’s approach to these. I am left wondering how Gabrys’ approach would differ both from Gille’s notion of an inventively developing technical system coupled via a loose determinism to social and economic systems, and from Leroi-Gourhan’s notion of an abstract universal technical tendency that enters into a complex relation with human ethnic realities generating technical facts that envelop the tendency and give it its only concrete, differentiated realizations.

Considering the broad, cosmological scope at stake in Gabrys’ work, not to mention the kind of panpsychism introduced via her use of Whitehead, mostly as read by Isabelle Stengers (Whitehead 1929, Stengers 2011), I would be especially intrigued to see how Gabrys might demarcate her differences from Leroi-Gourhan’s quite general theory.[3] How is ‘program Earth’ different from the universal technical tendency becoming concretized by the human ethnos on a planetary scale? Is ‘program Earth’ different from what Leroi-Gourhan describes as a movement within the interior milieu of human culture that is gaining progressive foothold in the exterior milieu of geography, climate, vegetation, and animals? How would Gabrys position her work as distinct from Leroi-Gourhan’s paleoanthropological idea of humans as originarily technical beings (Leroi-Gourhan 1993) and the notion that the human group operates as if it were a living organism that assimilates its exterior milieu via technology as a curtain of objects, an interposed membrane, an artificial envelope?

Questions such as these might be spurred by Gabrys’ mode of raising questions concerning technology without delving very deeply into existing major theoretical ways of answering these, but this certainly does not preclude an interesting engagement. If I am left with the impression that this engagement is to some extent marred by too many eclectic syntheses, that does not prohibit me from finding shared interests and a great many valuable points made in Gabrys’ deployment of selected parts of the conceptual armature developed in the works of Simondon, Whitehead, and Stengers.

I appreciate the way in which Simondon’s concepts of “individuation,” “the preindividual,” and “concretization” pave the way for Gabrys’ proposal that sensor network technologies create new versions of the real, actualize environments, entities, and relations, and see to the becoming of individuals and collectives. Likewise, it is valuable to me to follow the ways in which Gabrys marshals Whitehead’s process philosophy, specifically its concepts of “concrescence,” “occasions,” “organisms,” “superjects,” and “withness,” so as to endow her work with a cosmological and panpsychic dimension in which humans, animals, plants, objects, environments, as well as technologies live and relate in prehensive and co-involving ways. I can also see the usefulness to Gabrys’ project of Stengers’ cosmopolitics, not least with respect to its constructivist approach via experimentalist science and research to multiple different but co-existing technical practices and worlds.

However, I still find Gabrys’ approach much too eclectic and reductive. Each of these thinkers are appropriated via a handful of concepts each, and an attempt is made to synthesize these in a fairly metaphorical manner. This means that very little is done in terms of respecting the larger framework unfolded by each thinker, just as the quite considerable differences among them tend to be erased altogether. In addition, one would like to see each of these thinkers approached as more than one. Even though this is invisible in Gabrys’ book, the still growing body of receptions and applications bears witness that there are several Simondons, Whiteheads, and Stengers.

Gabrys’ synthesizing work is quite adept and often suggestive, but its limited engagement with its key thinkers and its reductions via metaphors lead to major impoverishment as regards both the bigger theoretical picture and a finer analytical sense of differentiation. For instance, Simondon’s relational ontology is not the same as Whitehead’s cosmology, which is not the same as Stenger’s cosmopolitics. Simondon’s notions of interior, exterior, and associated milieus are not the same as Whitehead’s notion of environment as processual condition and datum, and this is not the same as Stengers’ notion of a scientific constructivism gaining a foothold. Simondon’s thought of the mode of existence and individuating concretizations of technical objects is not the same as Whitehead’s speculative philosophical inventions and concrescences, and these are not the same as Stengers’ constructivist, scientific and experimental inventions.

In this vein, I also find it somewhat problematic that these thinkers, the key supports of Gabrys’ theory and method in Program Earth, seem to have been read piecemeal, with respect to primary and secondary sources both. Simondon’s work on the physical-biological genesis of the individual makes very little appearance, his work on perception seems not to factor in too much, and, strangely, the same appears to be the case with respect to some of his work on technology and technical invention (Simondon 2006, 2014, Simondon and Chateau 2005). Gabrys moreover seems to take for granted that Simondon can be read almost purely through Muriel Combes useful early account (Combes 1999). I think it would make a difference that makes a difference if Gabrys had considered other possibilities also. An engagement with at least a few of the other important readings and deployments would almost surely have led to a richer, more finely differentiated set of Simondons as well as a deeper engagement with the issue of how to approach technology with and against Simondon (Barthélémy 2005, Barthélémy and Beaune 2005, Chabot 2003, Combes 2013, De Boever 2012, Dittmar 2013, Guchet 2010, Hottois 1993, Mills 2016, Simondon 1994, Stiegler 1994, Toscano 2005) Since Whitehead is read through the Process and Reality volume only, and this almost exclusively via Stenger’s admittedly enjoyable and thought-provoking approach in Thinking with Whitehead, a similar argument can be made here.

Going through Program Earth it is very obvious to the reader that, for Gabrys, Simondon is the main thinker of technology. This is wonderful to see, given that it has taken a great many efforts during the last twenty years and more to make Simondon’s important work better known and productive — outside of France, and beyond the recognition of his vast influence on the thought of Gilles Deleuze. It is also obviously useful to begin outlining the ways in which contemporary network societies could be rethought and reinvented via an experimental operationalization of Simondon’s texts. In several respects, I therefore affirm what Gabrys has set out to do in her book. I am also left with some reservations, however, and at least two bear mention.

The first concerns one of the singularly impressive traits of Simondon’s work on individuation, namely, his ability to couple a very general dynamic and genetic thought with an incredible level of detail as regards the ongoing developmental concretization of technical, collective, and psychic individuations. Of this Gabrys manages to sustain some of the general thought of individuation and concretization, but the collective and psychic individuations are largely parenthesized. Moreover, no type of individuation is unfolded by Gabrys with any detailed attention to its genesis and history of evolution towards material and formal concretization. Even with respect to the mode of existence and concretization of technical individuations, Gabrys’ text bears no comparison with Simondon’s sense of evolution and its rhythmic unfoldings of concrete traits over time, across continuous minor improvements and major discontinuities. It is truly strange, also given her explicit affirmation of a radical empiricism, that Gabrys does not undertake a more detailed evolutionary kind of work, at least in relation to the technics at the center of her drama: the development of networks of sensors and actuators. At least in terms of the style of thought, Simondon’s approach in On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects to the automobile engine and the electronic tube should have been able to inspire Gabrys. Much closer to contemporaneity and the current computational context at stake for Gabrys, the work done by Adrian Mackenzie should have been able to make a difference in this regard. How come there is no engagement in Program Earth with networks of sensors and actuators that offers the detailed and genetic insight characteristic of Mackenzie’s work on the hardware designing and the software development driving the concretization of wirelessness and wireless computer chips (Mackenzie 2011, 59-86)? This reservation of mine also has its more extensive side, for the reader will find in Gabrys’ book a very limited set of historical and empirical engagements with the computer, hardware, software, databases, networks, and interaction designs. One might question how reasonable and convincing Gabrys’ study of a world with ubiquitous computing can be if this is the case.

My second reservation concerns the need or desirability to work simultaneously with and against Simondon, notably as regards some of the unavoidable historical and theoretical limits of his work. Gabrys’ adoption of Simondon implicitly has her book operate with the kind of privilege granted to the human orchestration of technology that makes it a good deal too anthropocentric, especially for an epoch and a situation involving variants of bots, multitudes of software agents, the artificial intelligence of context-aware ‘calm’ computing, and wetter kinds of informational artificial life. In addition, via Simondon Gabrys seems to have been led to an engagement with the computer and information technology that proceeds primarily via the early wave of cybernetics; notably, the work done by Norbert Wiener (Wiener 1948, 1950). As a result, Gabrys’ view of the machine and the computer largely remains marked by mechanistic paradigms of feedback and homeostasis, something that does very little to meet the much more recursive, forward-feeding, and relationally open information machines now in fact on the move with ubiquitous computing, pervasive computing, ambient intelligence, and the Internet of Things. It also just about prohibits any theoretical engagement with all the more interesting and more current work done in second-order cybernetics, dynamical systems theory, and theories of complexity and emergence (Bateson 1972, Bedau and Humphreys 2008, Clarke and Hansen 2009, Hayles 1999, Kauffman 1993, Maturana and Varela 1980, Nicolis and Prigogine 1989, Pask 1996, Prigogine and Stengers 1984, Simon 1962, Varela 1996, Von Foerster 1995, Weaver 1948, Wolfram 1984, 2002).

My surprise when realizing that Gabrys does not approach Simondon and the issue of cybernetics in a critical reflexive manner might well mirror other readers’ surprise at the approach to critique and criticality in several other passages of Program Earth. From the author of Digital Rubbish and Accumulation: The Material Politics of Plastic one might well have expected, and looked forward to, no little critical and ethico-political positioning with respect to the material implications of ubiquitous computing in general and the technics of sensors and actuators in particular, including no few environmentalist remarks concerning electronic waste and energy expenditure, global and local pollution, natural and urban cultural sustainability. The reader will find very little of this voiced at any length, however. Perhaps readers would also expect, and look forward to, a series of critical discussions and evaluations of some of the other less salubrious implications of the development of ubiquitous computing. However, even though Gabrys’ book shows momentary awareness of several of these, readers will meet with very little in terms of critical evaluations or political positions vis-à-vis surveillance, privacy, security, loss of information rights, soft and infrastructural political-economical control, algorithmic feed-forward manipulation at cognitive levels prior to human focal consciousness, the coding of space and restrictions of the freedom of movement, the kinds of psychological, social, and monetary expropriation characteristic of always-on attention-mining, habitual profiling, and big data economies, and more. In fact, even the computer scientists, hardware engineers, and software developers at work on ubiquitous computing during the last 25 years have been displaying more, and more explicit, critical awareness than Gabrys of the stakes of this development. This is indeed a quite surprising side of Program Earth. Even though I do call for much more, and much more explicit, work along such lines than what this book offers, I think one will also have to inquire what appears to replace this. This notably because some of the most important and interesting engagements in Gabrys’ book are arguably to be found precisely here.

In Chapter 3, for example, Gabrys addresses scientific projects in which a range of animals and organisms are equipped with sensor technics that track their ways of traversing and inhabiting milieus, projects often motivated by a belief that the gathering of more complex and more complete data will permit a more adequate, sound, and sustainable address of environmental change. One might be surprised that Gabrys does not in the main subscribe to or refute this belief, that she does not engage in an ethico-political and critical discussion of animality and rights, a discussion of technics as gift, poison, or pharmakon, and a discussion of allegedly ‘objective’ science versus human intervention and environmental invasion. Likewise, one might be surprised that the same chapter brings Gabrys to the verge of a critique of early cybernetics and informational practices, having considered the thought of Canguilhem and Simondon on milieux and technics, only to back away from this by stating “I have not sought to articulate a position for or against these practices.” (104) Then, however, one should also go on to be surprised and curious about what Gabrys tries to offer as an alternative.

I think interested readers will find some swerves and ambivalences but also quite some consistency to Gabrys writing here. Program Earth attempts to offer alternatives in the form of a number of slow, momentary, local, small-scale speculative inventions and becomings. Rather than a critique of early cybernetics, for example, the reader is led towards a potentially transformative consideration of what information-based ambitions and methods tune us into. This includes an attunement to the “very particular worlds and inhabitations that are accounted for, and the milieus, inventions, and becomings that might remain off the computational map, no matter how many more data points we add.” (104) In other words, Gabrys’ text leads in a rather Whiteheadean way towards an alternative of speculative feeling, towards a becoming more-than-one, towards a participatory feeling traversing worlds. (104-5) Likewise, Gabrys leaves to one side the critical issues of animals equipped with computational sensor technics gathering data during traversals of milieux. This in favor of opening onto a speculative questioning with respect to the emergent implications of “creating an expansive and even global animal-sensor network that functions as the ‘pulse of the living planet’” (87). Instead of critique, Gabrys would rather have us participate in a speculative development, one concerning “the sorts of animal-human-milieu interactions that might unfold through the more pervasive project of tagging numerous organisms… the traversals made across organisms, sensing, data, and milieus” (99).

In fact, every chapter will present to the reader a small set of such speculative openings onto other potential concrescences of “technogeographies.” Program Earth could well be read, then, as the arrivals at a little bundle of speculative approximations to inventions perhaps to come and to become concretized. This might be suggestive and interesting to the reader, but it will also begin to raise questions with respect to the status of these moves and, by extension, the book as a whole. For instance, the entire structuration of the contents of Program Earth indirectly draws on such speculative approximations to potential inventions and begins to convey at least two implicit narratives in the book, and readers might well be uncertain whether these are to be read as potentially ethico-political, aesthetic, or critical. One is the tale of a transformative passage from the large-scale environmental sensing and actuation in and of the universe and planetary nature to environmental sensing and actuation in the small-scale side-show of human cultural concerns. A second is the tale of a transformative passage from wild nature polluted and gifted with technological artifact, through pollution of nature and technological artifact as gift/pollution, to the sociopolitics of human urban cultures polluted and gifted with technological artifact. These implicit narratives are not really offered by Gabrys as arguments but perhaps rather as suggestive narratives. They are not explicit but rather remain implicit in the structuration. They also remain marked by no little tension and lack of clarity as to their actual import, if any, and it would perhaps not be completely wrong to indicate in Program Earth no little penchant for the potential in speculation. This might begin to explain some of the metaphorically synthesizing writing style, an apparent reactivation of parts of Gabrys’ early training in literary studies. It might also begin to explain the attractiveness to Gabrys of the kind of wild thought of ecologies found in some of Felix Guattari’s work (Guattari 1995, 2005).

Very likely, readers of Program Earth will come across not only these narratives but numerous other passages, sentences, and phrases in the book whose discursive acts will leave quite some doubt with respect to their character and import. Repeatedly, Gabrys will write that a given chapter is to ‘discuss’ some issue, but the reader will find perhaps description, perhaps metaphorical association, perhaps speculation, and nothing easily recognizable as a ‘discussion.’ In other places, Gabrys will announce an ‘examination,’ but the reader will instead tend to find recounting, lyrical phrasing, and speculation. It would be strange if this did not lead readers to wonder. Do Gabrys’ chapters and the book as a whole concern the potential or the actual? Do they engage in rational critique, immanent or external, or do they present and state something akin to muthos? Are they concerned with practical experiments open to various possibilities or with enactments of evaluations and political decisions? Are they suggestive and aesthetic or descriptive and argumentative?

I consider Program Earth a good deal too enamored of the potential and too suspended in terms of offering up its concrete import and impact. But at the same time, and in a strange manner, I find the most interesting reserve in Gabrys’ text precisely here. It is not primarily interesting because of its underplayed urban and environmentalist DIY participatory political activism in an age of ubiquitous computing. It is not first and foremost of interest due to its low-key voicing of ethical concerns with sustainability, climate, and the living. It is also not in the first place of interest because it gives readers a comprehensive and critical rational discussion of the implications of current network societies trying to live on with environmentally and infrastructurally pervasive information technology.

Rather, I tend to think that this book is most interesting because of its somewhat understated deployment of speculation and the decision to stage Whitehead’s thought by drawing on Steven Shaviro’s recent work — not so much the earlier Without Criteria as the more recent The Universe of Things (Shaviro 2009, 2014). This is another way of saying that Gabrys’ book is perhaps most interesting because it can be read as staging the question concerning speculative realism and because it can form a little part of a diagnosis of the intellectual history of the present, the part looking at where some of the interesting French and Anglo-American theoretical and philosophical work has been going on during the last ten years or so. I think Gabrys’ book is not just trying to be intellectually trendy but also manages to position itself in a still ongoing debate of quite some import. Program Earth is interesting because it is a piece of speculative realism that is silently governed by the problem of the bifurcation of nature and has chosen, along with Shaviro, to affirm the Kantian emphasis on human finitude and limits, and to work in a panpsychic way on the correlationist paradigm by placing aesthetics as first philosophy of non-correlational sentience of the universe of things.

In this vein, I prefer to read Gabrys’ book as a text with a view to its several echoes of the intellectual impact made by the exchanges concerning speculative realism at least since the 2007 and 2009 conferences at Goldsmiths and UWE Bristol and the proceedings in the Collapse journal (Mackay 2007a, b). I think Gabrys’ book is an interesting case of speculative environmentality, one in which a speculatively aesthetic realism has the environmental, the technological, and the living relate and individuate in infinitely finite ways.

My regret is that it takes its stance so implicitly and tentatively. For it makes it difficult for readers to notice the key role played by Shaviro’s work, just as one cannot even read between the lines how Gabrys would want to address the ghost of a dogmatic realism at work somewhere at the outer inner edge of Shaviro’s machine, close to the infinite. It also means that Program Earth offers little in terms of voicing its real, existing complements or adversaries: the proponents of several different kinds of metaphysical realism departing from hegemonic post-Kantian philosophy and correlationism. Gabrys’ aims at and wishes to ‘create openings to inventive encounters with environmental sensing, as well as to enable propositions for practice.’ (23) Program Earth would have been the more of a set of such openings to sentient wonder if it had entered into an explicitation of the ways in which it would or would not delimit Shaviro’s kind of speculative realism. It would have been more of a creation of openings to inventive encounters with environmental sensings if it had articulated how it would relate or remain incapable of relating to Quentin Meillassoux’ speculative materialism and its Humean a priori (Meillassoux 2009), to Graham Harman’s object-oriented ontology and its quasi-Aristotelean substance (Harman 2010, 2016), to the transcendental materialism of Iain H. Grant and its quasi-Platonic physics of the All (Grant 2006), as well as to Ray Brassier’s transcendental nihilism and its conjunction of thought with a world inherently devoid of meaning and with non-being (Badiou, Brassier, and Toscano 2015, Brassier 2009).

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[1] Broadly speaking, the third wave of computing, along with the rise of mobile and social media technics, concern developments after Mark Weiser’s early vision in the mid-90s for a ‘calm’ human-oriented computing, i.e., the developments during the last 20 years, notably in and around cities in South-East Asia, Europe, and the U.S., of ubiquitous computing, pervasive computing, ambient intelligence, and the Internet of Things. Interesting approaches to the sociocultural implications of this development can be found in Crang and Graham (2007), Dourish (2001), Dourish and Bell (2011), Ekman (2013, 2016), McCullough (2004, 2013).

[2] I note in passing that Gabrys’ thought of ”technogeographies” could also be strengthened in thought-provoking ways by introducing a more complex and morphogenetic set of sources on spatialization. For instance, I was surprised not to see Lefebvre’s notion of the production of space in play (Lefebvre 1991), or some of Nigel Thrift’s work on movement-space, spatialities of feeling, and affective spaces (Thrift 2008). I think it would be especially interesting to see the ways in which Gabrys would pursue a topological theorization of contemporary “technogeographies.” For a more detailed engagement with topological approaches to smart cities specifically, see my work on design as topology (Ekman 2015).

[3] The kind of panpsychism adopted by Gabrys via Whitehead, read through Steven Shaviro (Shaviro 2014), is quite thought-provoking but also open to no little critical debate. Apart from that I would be curious to see what Gabrys would make of more biologically well-informed sources engaging with panpsychism, e.g., Evan Thompson (Thompson 2007).

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