Open Source Digital Geiger Counters in the Tokyo Hackerspace

The Hackerspace culture gained a momentum in the recent Fukushima disaster, proving its ability to mobilize and serve the needs of the public by building low tech solutions used for participatory monitoring of radiation. These tools in Japan enabled citizens to deal directly with the disaster by measuring, sharing and interpreting data, and to better cope with the crisis situation on a psychological and social level.

Excerpted from Denise Kera‘s study of Asian DIYBio and Open Hardware experiments:

“The last case study in our thumbnail survey will focus on Tokyo Hackerspace, and emphasize how a vast range of citizen involvement in science, technology, and policy are subtly related to alternative R&D spaces. Their Safecats project initiated shortly after the Fukushima meltdown and ghostownification of an entire region. The goal was to create “open source humanitarian hardware” for participatory sensing of radiation, shows clearly the limits and possibilities of connecting community, science and technology. The open source DIY tools were both a design response to the challenges of gathering independent data and understanding the spread and effects of radiation, but also political gadgets of social action and even personal fetish objects for dealing with uncertainty and trauma. The DIY and open hardware aspects of building low tech tools added to the personal, social, and public sensing activities an aspect of healing and catharsis related to the extraordinary challenges of this collective trauma, but also to a situation of extreme uncertainty. It is now frankly acknowledged that participatory monitoring over DIY Geiger counters and similar low tech solutions generated rather than tamed the uncertainties surrounding radiation, because they showed how difficult and maybe impossible it is to get accurate data about the unfolding situation and decide on the right course of action. In this sense, participatory monitoring is not only about crowdsourcing data, but as well involves dispersing individual and collective anxiety, hopes and fears. It is in the wild, which Fukushima has been in spades, a therapeutic mobile device rather than policy mechanism, a form of post-apocalyptic ritual of everyday and every night catharsis and healing, with occasional elements of protest and reflection.

DIY open hardware tools for radiation monitoring in Japan are more like technological fetishes and power objects, with ability to connect anxiety and hope, symbolic and real power over the circumstances, scientific (objective) data with primal human emotions. These radiation monitoring devices support a very distributed and multi-faceted response to the catastrophe, in the early days with utopian calls for a return to nature and in the end staging carnivalesque attitudes embracing an almost post-humanist and ironic relation to radiation (“Tokyo Radiation Levels” project by Steven Danieletto or “Tokyo Kids& Radiation community” on Facebook). The DIY tools, such as iGeigie, a functional assemblage of iPhone with Geiger counter, retain a deeply symbolic function related to the idea of “nuclear society” ( and issues with survival on a human scale. Another Safecast apparatus involves binding together a Global Positioning System receiver with a Geiger counter, managed through a Arduino controller mounted to the outside of an automobile with a data card (memory stick or SD card) uploading data in real time. Within the DIY context, this is a contemporary version of the nuclear shelter, prototyped and calibrated not in the ‘closed,’ sealed zero risk environment of the bunker stocked with canned foods, but in the open, managing fear and uncertainty through abstraction, knowledge, mobility and portability (Whitington & Kera, 2011).

The documentary film project shows how Safecast data are used for exploration of food contamination and organic farming. Strikingly, an ethic of openness extends even to contamination, at least in some cases, what one baker refers to in terms of “coexistence.” As the filmmakers write (Koziarski, 2011): “Ohashi may need to look outside Fukushima now for organic suppliers for his bread. He says we need to learn to coexist with radiation. Suzuki and Fukumoto are leaving the idyllic farming community of Kaidomari to live in balance with nature elsewhere. Hongo won’t sell his potentially contaminated rice this year, but he’s eating it himself. Yoshizawa wants to save his 300 irradiated dairy cows from a death sentence.” All of these decisions imply a commitment not to nuclear technologies but to living in the light of their consequences within a vision of nature that combines coexistence and compassion with the patently not-natural and pervasive radiation. In this sense, DIY monitoring tools are not media for assessing our situation and creating a public pressure on some policy makers or even protesting against the circumstances.

These tools do not serve only rational goals and needs, but are also means of that carnivalesque, ironic and semi-magical interaction which Brenda Laurel calls “designed animism”; this theatricality reminds us data are never passive representations, but triggers for action: ‘Sensors that gather information about wind, or solar flares, or neutrino showers, or bird migrations, or tides, or processes inside a living being, or dynamics of an ecosystem are means by which designers can invite nature into collaboration, and the invisible patterns they capture can be brought into the realm of the senses in myriad new ways.” (Laurel, 2009 p.262) These DIY fetishes are tools of negotiation with non-human forces in ways which are not only scientific (calibration) or political (protest), but as well deeply personal and even for some people manifestly spiritual (therapy, reflection, irony).

The anthropological fascination with fetish objects struggled with a primal problem of many epistemologies, namely the association of symbolic and material realms. Some of these traditional practices and associations, expressed in ritual and myth, appear as powerful spiritual technologies operating through elemental materials bound together in figurative form (Mauss, 2001; Pietz, 1991). Currencies such as cowry and glass, technologically powerful objects for binding, piercing and reflecting, powerful figures forged or carved as rulers under public gaze or in secrecy, are all examples of such fetishes similar to DIY open source hardware. They also use powerful technological objects and transform them into alternative, low tech and imaginative uses that open new possibilities of interaction. These DIY tools embody the critical design attitude behind “what if… ?” approaches, functioning to awaken users to possibilities of various futures. They incorporate even “design noir” attitudes (Dunne & Raby, 2001) that insist our tools are often the expression of our unconsciousness, being symbolically powerful instruments with which we actively explore the aberrations, transgressions and obsessions in our society and nature. Canivalesque and therapeutic design behind the Hackerspace projects in Japan is an affirmative celebration of the “Unpredictable potential of human beings to establish new situations despite the constraints on everyday life imposed through electronic objects”. (Dunne & Raby, 2001 p.7)

DIY Geiger counters and similar participatory devices are typical “noir” and fetish tools. Pace Dune and Raby, they are media “that fuse complex narratives with everyday life… a fusion of psychological and external `realities’” in which “ the user would become a protagonist and coproducer of narrative experience rather than a passive consumer of a product‘s meaning…. objects that generate `existential moments’ – a dilemma, for instance -which they would stage or dramatise.” We need, however, to resist Dunne and Raby’s judgmental definition of these tools as basically wicked and means of self-reflection: “These objects would not help people to adapt to existing social, cultural and political values. Instead, they force a decision onto the user, revealing how limited choices are usually hard-wired into products for us. On another level, we could simply enjoy the wickedness of the values embedded in these products and services. Their very existence is enough to create pleasure.” (Dune & Raby, 2001 p.46) To be sure, the carnivalesque and therapeutic dimensions of a ritualized practice of moving through contaminated spaces, as an active technological reflection on environmental uncertainty, raises a range of performative and experiential practices associated with these tools. But what is overlooked here is that the participatory DIY monitoring of radiation with open source hardware tools becomes a form of modern technological ritual, bringing together a community facing a dangerous and uncertain situation and trying to cope with it as best they can. In the case of Japan it has also triggered a natural geopolitical experiment of lowering the energy demands of the whole country and pushing production and industry to China in order to shut down the nuclear facilities.”

1 Comment Open Source Digital Geiger Counters in the Tokyo Hackerspace

  1. AvatarMaurizio (by

    The Geiger counter is again of great interest only after the events of fukuscima but today it is again an instrument almost completely forgotten, especially for the people of Europe. The reason is that we all tend to forget quickly and irrational all those who have negative experiences. This is simply because the media does not speak more dangers even if they still exist.

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