Sensing Risk: A Symposium on Risk in the Sensor Society

Keynote Address: Dr. Mark Andrejevic (Professor, Chair of Media Studies, Pamona College, USA)

March 14, 2016, 1-5, H-1120, Concordia University, Montréal, Canada

“I’m not sure if something is wrong with the sensor. Is there a way to reset or recalibrate the device?”—Recently this question was posted on Reddit in a forum for people who use mobile self-tracking devices. These devices, usually worn on the wrist, sense the wearer’s movements and, depending on the device, heartbeat. The question was asked by the husband of a device user, who noted that his wife had “logged 10 hours in the fat burning zone, which I think would be impossible,” given that she was working at her desk all day. It turned out that his wife was pregnant, and the self-tracking device had, by sensing her elevated heart-rate, provided the first clue to this possibility.[1] This example is just one instance in a much wider range of circumstances where always-on sensing devices are producing new forms of knowledge about everyday risks. It suggests that data produced by always-on sensors is automatically and algorithmically processed in ways that may be obscure to users.

Sensors yield rafts of information about everyday events and risks. When decontextualized, this data may be meaningless; when correlated with other information, however, it can quickly take on new meaning. A key question that arises in such circumstances has to do with how people are made subject to diverse forms of risk detection and management via what has come to be known as the “sensor society”. Andrejevic and Burdon define the sensor society as one in which “the interactive devices and applications that populate the digital information environment come to double as sensors”. The concept of the sensor society directs analytic attention to “the costly infrastructures that enable data collection, storage, and processing as well as to the advantages that flow to the institutions that own, operate, and access them”.[2] It highlights the fact that people are commonly enrolled into diverse forms of risk management, often without their knowledge or consent.

The purpose of the Sensing Risk Symposium is to explore the implications of emergent and pervasive forms of risk management in the sensor society. Drawing on, and contributing to, the activities of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Society and Culture’s Risk Research Working Group (CISSC RRWG), the Symposium will bring together risk researchers from across Concordia University and beyond with the aim of developing new conceptual frameworks for analyzing the dynamics of risk in the sensor society. A core focus will be upon the implications of risk sensing techniques for citizens as they transit through urban spaces of consumption.


[1] News, February 9, 2016, online at:

[2] Andrejevic, M. and Burdon, M. 2015. “Defining the Sensor Society,” Television & New Media 16(1): 19-36.