Anna-Lena Wiechern

With a work on ubiquitous computing that investigates intelligent sensor technologies through the lens of French philosopher Gilbert Simondon, Anna recently graduated from the University of Leeds, UK. Now, at MECS she wants to excavate the historical paths of today’s intelligent sensors and their interplay with simulation in order to prepare for her PhD. Her central concern lies with making the increasingly automated interactions between users and their intelligent environments more visible and legible. 

This research interest gradually took shape over the course of Anna’s undergraduate education: first, at Leuphana University (Kulturwissenschaften, Theory and Philosophy of Media) and later, during a year abroad at the University of South Wales in Cardiff, UK (Media Communications), which she completed with her thesis on the chaotic potentials of information and communication technologies.



Capturing Presences. A Genealogy of the Relationship between Sensor and Simulation 

In the course of my project, I would like to uncover the historic developments that lead to the “sensing” technologies of today.  What is at the heart of this, is the »drawing« activities of sensors in intelligent environments and the necessity to rethink the concept of the user in a way that splits up the notion into a deliberately acting operator as well as a passive supplier digital sensor technologies can extract data from. 

Networked sensors can be viewed as the equivalent to human sensory organs and are crucial elements of automation – from semi-autonomous cars to smart watches tracking our heart rates. On the one side, they may be conceived of as ways of extending the human body’s capacities but on the other, they also constitute an »outsourced« mode of simulating sensory perception and thus, they monitor the bodies in question from an external perspective. What is more, in order to optimize automation technologies, sensors are subject to simulation processes themselves (RWTH Aachen, 2016). 

Approached from yet another angle, automated reactions facilitated by intelligent sensor technologies are simulations of a command that was neither directed nor addressed deliberately but an unintentional gesture interpreted by a system. Proximity sensors for example deactivate the display of a mobile phone when the device is being brought near the face. Whilst taking the call is the intentional action of the user, the deactivation of the display is a response the intelligent system provided autonomously based on data it was able to gather itself. This makes sensors »self-activating switches«, so to speak, feeding from nothing more than a user’s physical presence or movement to generate an adequate response to an anticipated need. In intelligent environments, these interactions happen beyond the scope of human perception. This turns unintentional behavior into a whole range of different acts to be interpreted as »signals«. Intelligent sensors draw our attention towards an issue we can frame as the counterpart to the problem of »access« and »participation«: sensor-equipped digital environments create a scenario where avoiding and evading ongoing production and ceaseless transmission of data becomes a much greater challenge than becoming part of it. Thereby, these systems invert the user-environment-relationship. 

As this has significant effects on the notion of the user as such, it appears particularly important to transfer the insights regarding the »doubling« of the user figure to the current discourse on digital or media literacy. In order to enable an appropriate understanding of what it implies to interact with intelligent technology, we would need to come to a conceptual framework that includes the passive role of the user as a source of information sensors can constantly draw from. Even though the idea of ubiquitous computing (Weiser, 1991 and 1993) or the so-called Internet of Things (Greengard, 2015; Ashton, 2009) still might seem like science fiction the mechanisms facilitating these worlds are already in place.