Dark sentience

Architecture and media theorist Mark Shepard offered a helpful definition of “sentience” in his appropriately titled 2011 book Sentient City.

“What are the implications of calling a city ‘sentient’? The word sentience’ refers to the ability to feel or perceive subjectively, but does not necessarily include the faculty of self-awareness” (31).

He states that self awareness belongs to sapience, which differs from claims about sentience.

“… the possession of ‘sapience’ is not a necessity. Sapience can connote knowledge, consciousness, or apperception. The word ‘sentience,’ derived from sentre, means ‘to feel’ or ‘to hear.’ Sapience comes from sapere, meaning ‘to know.’ So a sentient city, then, is one that is able to hear and feel things happening within it.” (31)

He offers a sobering assessment of the limits to sentience. A sentient city may feel things, but

“doesn’t necessarily know anything in particular about them. It feels you, but doesn’t necessarily know you” (31).

I like the fact that Shepard referred to how concepts such as sentience provoke us to think differently about citizens, non-human actors and cities.

“The Sentient City thus becomes a contested site: a theoretical construct within which longstanding claims of essential human qualities, capabilities and characteristics are critically destabilized through their attribution to non-human actors. This destabilization is understood to work actively, as a tactical maneuver enabling other ways of thinking that not so much confront dominant ideologies but elide common wisdoms about, not only what it means to be human, but also what it might mean to be a city” (33).

There’s a legacy to such provocative thinking about cities and sentience. Shepard refers to the earlier article by urban geographers Mike Crang and Stephen Graham titled “Sentient Cities: Ambient intelligence and the politics of urban space.”

These researchers outline some of the attempts (prior to 2001) to take advantage of location-based applications on mobile phones: walking tours, locative games, consumer services and other “attempts to re-enchant the world” (807), granting agency to the elements in the world.

“in a world of augmented, enacted, transduced or ‘blogjected’ space – we will no longer, even if we ever could, be able to see the environment as a mere passive backcloth for social action. At the very least the environment has always recursively influenced and been influenced by action” (811).

The ubiquitous technologies adjust the timeframe of cause and effect.

“What these technologies do is to change the temporality of that action. Much writing has focused on the real-time nature of links – such as drawing down locationally sensitive data for transactions” (811)

Both articles affirm the benefits of placing ubiquitous technologies under the heading of sentience. Crang and Graham introduce the idea that technologies are designed increasingly in a way that supposedly anticipate our wants and needs: “a sense that environments are now being saturated with anticipatory technologies” (811).

There’s a dark side of course as the providers of digital services and platforms try to

“profile users in more sophisticated ways that in the end possibly pacify that user by creating a delegated agency. They also constantly use surveillance data to categorize users, a process which strongly links imaginations and anticipations of future behaviour(s) to categorical renderings from computerized memory” (811).

I think these early misgivings about ubiquitous technology are borne out by current reflections on the commercialisation of technologies that purport to profile and influence consumers. See post: Surveillance capitalism and its discontents.


  • Crang, Mike, and Stephen Graham. “Sentient Cities: Ambient intelligence and the politics of urban space.” Information, Communication & Society 10, no. 6 (2007): 789-817. 10.1080/13691180701750991
  • Shepard, Mark. “Toward the sentient city.” In Sentient City: Ubiquitous Computing, Architecture, and the Future of Urban Space, edited by Mark Shepard, 15-45. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011.

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