Innovation, cities, and the optimistic case for economic growth in the digital age
Eric Jaffe

Eric Jaffe — interesting post! On the topic of ubiquitous connectivity and ubiquitous sensing, I am curious about public perceptions of sensors.

I just watched Carnegie Melon’s presentation on the “Promise and Peril of Connected Sensors” from Davos ( and it got me thinking about two things:

1. How does the tech community frame conversations /discourse about sensors?
2. What are public perceptions of “ubiquitous sensing?”

From a design perspective, I think it’s really fascinating that advertisements for sensor-based technologies use similar imagery/icons (see attached image). Usually, you will see an object, like a light bulb, a car, a toothbrush, etc. with radio signal waves around it. This has become the standard way of communicating that “ X object is a “smart//IoT/sensor-based” object. The radio waves symbolize connectivity in order to communicate to the consumer that X object is “connected” to a network and to other objects (and devices). But it’s not really the “connectivity” of these objects that we care about, right? What we care about is the fact that sensors can measure, detect, and make “sense of” the specific activity associated with these objects and the activity that is happening around these objects. I care that the activity that is happening around it is captured in a way that wasn’t possible before.

Let’s think about this at a high level. A sensor is an electronic device that measures a physical state. So when we embed sensors throughout our environment (built and natural) we are transforming the environment and the activity going on in it into bits of data by choosing to measure it. This data can be sampled many thousands of times per second, creating a real-time digital representation of what’s happening. So the question then becomes what activity do we want to measure? This is why public discourse matters — -why talking about sensors is going to become really important. I don’t think I can agree with Rob Kitchin and Alain Desrosières who argue that:

“A sensor has no politics or agenda. It simply measures light or heat or humidity, and so on — producing readings that reflect the truth about the world unless tainted by a technical glitch. In other words, the sensor produces an objective, realist view of the world revealing things as they really are, wherein the reality of thing being measured is independent of the measuring process.”

Yes, a sensor produces readings, but it produces readings within a social, cultural, political context because the activity sensors measure is inherently social, cultural and political. Moreover, who chooses where we embed sensors in an object, space, environment, etc.? Can we really say that a sensor has no politics or agenda?

I’m really interested in reading more thoughts/perspectives on this topic.

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