Every science must devise its own instruments.
—WHITEHEAD, Process and Reality
WHEN WHITEHEAD ASSERTS THAT “every science must devise its own instruments,” he is referring in part to the need for distinct tools to be formed in relation to modes of inquiry. A study of ecology materializes as a much different inquiry than a study of philosophy. Here Whitehead notes, “The tool required for philosophy is language.” His statement has a multidirectional character and suggests not only that tools are required for distinct scientific practices but also that scientific practices are formed through devising and using distinct instruments. While in addition to philosophy, this assertion could point to physics and mathematics, biology and atmospheric chemistry, it might also indicate how the practices of citizen science and citizen sensing form with and through distinct instruments and instrumental processes. Yet are instruments also defining entities for these practices, which might variously be characterized as what Ruha Benjamin has called a “people’s science”? And if so, how are these instruments further characterized by their modes of practice and not just by their distinct form as tools? In other words, citizen science and citizen sensing cross the spectrum of possible tools and subjects of inquiry, yet it is not just the actual instrument used that is the defining characteristic but also the mode of engagement and relationality set in motion that remakes instruments, scientific practice, and inquiry. This section considers, then, how instruments materialize along with practices of inquiry and inquiring subjects—the instrumental citizens that would undertake sensing projects.
Instruments do work in the world. They can make undetectable phenomena evident. They tune us into other registers of experience, and they attach us to perceptive practices that remake our sensory worlds. A list of instruments devised along with scientific practices could extend to epic proportions, spanning the fantastic and the precise. If the air pump has featured to demonstrate the emergence of a certain mode of objective science, it has also been the source of much attention in producing universalized subjects who are seemingly detached from making their objects of inquiry and knowledge. In this way, instruments and machines have served as devices for differentiating the contours of a rational human subject from an automaton or a duck, for instance. In a contrary way, technical devices, such as engines, are seen not to be mere instruments and instead have been discussed as generative of new subjects, milieus, and relations. Instruments might also seem to be something distinct from the contours of the human body, but as writings on the cyborg have demonstrated, instruments can remake technologies, subjects, relations, environments, and politics as well as what counts as scientific inquiry.
Environmental sensors as they are used within citizen-sensing practices are similarly wide ranging. Hygrometers and anemometers, barometers and thermometers, as well as metal oxide and electrochemical sensors for detecting air pollutants: there is a roving tool kit of borrowed, appropriated, hacked, and repurposed parts that citizens work with to attempt to document environmental disturbance. Here are multiple instruments, with different tunings, standards of measurement, modes of observation, political effects, and world-making capacities. If instruments are integral to the practice and definition of what counts as science, then you might wonder how citizen science and citizen sensing, with their DIY and makeshift instruments, begin to challenge and rework not just instruments but also what counts as science. What are the instruments of citizen sensing? How would citizen sensing be variously defined in relation to those sensors listed earlier, from PuffTrones to the Air Quality Egg? How do these devices contribute to the formation of diverse practices of inquiry? What are their capacities for transmogrifying the evident to make new forms of evidence? These are questions to ask along the way, while wondering about these instruments-in-the-making.
Instruments are a long-standing topic of investigation in science and technology studies, and there is no shortage of investigation of scientific instruments. Rather than trace the historical lineages and social–epistemic formations of instruments, however, I am interested in investigating the uneven and sprawling ways in which contemporary citizen-sensing instruments are taken up to pursue environmental and political agendas, but also how they at times fail to realize these outcomes or arrive at different alignments than initially anticipated. This is a way of working within, while also reworking, instruments and instrumentality toward something more like open-air instrumentalisms. The instruments of citizen sensing demonstrate how apparently instrumentalist versions of evidence-based politics can give rise to diverse and inventive citizen-based and collective practices through the very attempt to gain influence through the collection of data. These practices not only complicate an easy critique or adoption of instrumentalism; they also reinvent relations with instruments and instrumentality. At the same time, instruments or tools are already mutually constituted with practices, so that new worlds concretize through engagement with instruments, but not as a linear process.
Instruments are invariably involved with social relations. Any change to them, as Latour has suggested, will also shift social conditions. As he writes, “change the instruments, and you will change the entire social theory that goes with them.” Here Latour is engaging with the work of Gabriel Tarde to note the way in which “science is in and of the world it studies,” where instruments become crucial to social relations as they are performed, lived, and understood. A change of instruments, along with the standardization of instrumental processes, also in-forms the worlds that are set in motion and sustained. There is an instrumental force that instruments contribute to operationalizing. Yet these ends, consequences, and purposes are less likely to materialize through the mere enactment of a script or program built into an instrument and more likely to concretize through the social worlds and political subjects that assemble along with and through instrumental processes. You might wonder if there is also a how-to aspect to Latour’s assessment of Tarde. In other words, how do you change the instruments so that you can also change the entire social theory that goes with them? In its search to devise instruments, the how-to guide could be a call to undertake experimental engagements that generate ways of working with and through new technical arrangements, infrastructures, and modes of governance. The how-to guide is not simply the study of a technical problem; it is also an encounter with the potential of other social worlds. When thinking about how to devise instruments, you might then consider how changing instruments also changes the possibilities of encounter, engagement, and relation.
Instruments and Instrumentality
Instruments are the tools, devices, and contraptions that are constituted as they do work in the world. An instrument can be a sensor, a data logger, a tool kit. There are also conceptual instruments, discursive instruments, and policy instruments. An instrument could be something that standardizes and measures but also that constructs and generates. Instruments and instrumentality, then, are processes that put modes of inquiry and experimentation into motion, while raising questions about the types of observation and action that are undertaken. Are instruments generative of an expanded instrumentality, or are they prescriptive in their engagements and outcomes?
Instruments are often described as “mere” or “passive” or “functional” devices. Simondon suggests that an instrument-based view of technology tends to be reductive. He writes that the technological object has been “treated as an instrument” considered in relation to economics, work, or consumption but not engaged with through philosophical or cultural deliberations. Unlike cultural objects, he suggests that technical objects are relegated to “a utility function” and do not enjoy “citizenship in a world of significations.” For Simondon, the designation of a technical object as an instrument is a way of focusing on its functions only, where instrumentality seemingly has a predetermined outcome: to complete the task at hand. By suggesting that this is a way of denying technical objects a sort of citizenship, he seeks to diversify the entities from and through which meaning and sense—meaning as sense—materialize. Tools and technics, in other words, are cultural relations and expressions.
However, while in Simondon’s analysis, an instrument might be seemingly fixed in its capacities and modes of observation or operation as well as outcomes, it is also subject to retooling. As Whitehead notes, language is not simply a tool used by philosophy; instead, “philosophy redesigns language in the same way that, in a physical science, pre-existing appliances are redesigned.” This redesign occurs in part because of the breakdown of that instrument, which occurs at the edges “of expressing in explicit form the larger generalities—the very generalities which metaphysics seeks to express.” As instruments are engaged in processes of inquiry, they are then worked and reworked as they approach the edges of inquiry. But breakdown and retooling are not the only conditions of this instrumental engagement. These conditions occur because instruments—in this case, language—are searching toward propositions of fact that are also referring to the universe needed to sustain those facts.
Here we are again in the thick of a flat-pack cosmology, but from another perspective. The universe is not ready-made from a tool kit, nor is a tool kit as ready-made as it might have seemed to be. Instead, a universe is required for instruments to be put to work, making both the tools and the universe somewhat indeterminate in the inquiry to be undertaken, because they are both in process. An instrument might reach toward something more fixed and absolute, as it will require its world to make sense, yet these are both in the making through the practice of inquiry. The instruments and instrumentality that might have seemed to project toward a certain outcome become open-air instrumentalisms. They form through relations and deviate from a fixed purpose. They take shape through distinct modes of inquiry.
The many components of scientific practice involve what Jenny Reardon and collaborators refer to as the “material relationships that are part of knowledge-making practices, including political, social and cultural ones.” The instrument that might be accounted for in a scientific investigation is then always connected to “the multiplicity of entangled apparatuses” that includes ethics and justice. While the focus could easily lead to human-makers taking up instrument-tool kits to address environmental problems, such a perspective would further demonstrate the ways in which instruments, observation, observer, and phenomena are entangled such that world-making is a distributed and multiagential affair. In this sense, apparatuses for Barad “are constituted through particular practices that are perpetually open to rearrangements, rearticulations, and other reworkings.” Resurfacing here is a certain breakdown and redesign—or retooling—that occurs not as the work of a willful human subject but rather as part of the shifting conditions in which instruments unfold through instrumental operations and relations. Open-air instrumentalisms are multiagential and not only are the work of makers or tools but also erupt through situations, practices, and relations.
In the process of making instruments, you might wonder whether your approach to sensing environments has become somewhat “instrumental” or, as usually designated, overly functional. But as this discussion begins to suggest, even that which seems to be defined as an instrument and its instrumental outcomes begins to break down and be retooled through practices of inquiry. Although instrumentality has acquired a negative connotation—to say that something is instrumental is to suggest that it is a grossly efficient means to an end—these critiques of a certain mode of causality deserve another look in the context of working with citizen-sensing instruments. Although citizen-sensing technologies are often wrapped in the promise of a simple means–end practice, where sensing the environment will generate political change, the instrumental operations of these instruments are never as simple as this. Instrumentality can demonstrate other modes of effect and effectiveness, not that of a reductive cause and effect but rather a multiagential making of worlds. Although instrumentality might seem to generate a limited set of engagements with problems, this revisiting of instrumentality from within the milieus of instruments-in-practice shows how other modalities of action and practice can materialize.
Instrumentality is a mode of experience that might be productive of particular observations, expressions of citizenship, and relations with other collective entities for acting on problems of environmental pollution and environmental harm. Instrumentality, in this sense, necessarily becomes experimental in the process of undertaking concrete action. Instrumental experimentalism was a term and concept that Dewey used in a somewhat interchangeable way with pragmatism to refer to the contingency of “ends” within a philosophical—or democratic—project. On one level, Dewey was accounting for the rational unfolding of concepts that is central to the pragmatists’ approach to the instrumental. He drew on Charles Sanders Peirce and James to elaborate on a general progression of logical concepts as they are taken up in concrete situations. On another level, Dewey indicated the ways in which instrumentalism had implications for democracy—as a conceptual project always likely to generate struggle, contested relations, and modes of governance that are not direct or effortless instantiations of democratic principles. Or as Cornel West has suggested, such a “future-oriented instrumentalism,” while on one hand ran the risk of heroic or individual approaches to creative democracy, was on the other hand a search for strategies of “more effective action.”
A propositional end might serve as a guide for concrete action, but it is always provisional and inevitably reworked through concrete experience and practice. Because an end is not merely arrived at, moreover, it is in many ways radical in relation to the instrumental experimentalisms it operationalizes but from which it also deviates. Instrumentalism for Dewey, then, is about a process of experimentation, inquiry, and discovery. In this sense, it would be possible to say that instrumentalism has always been experimental. Moving from logical concepts to those other instruments, the material technologies that would also guarantee a certain rational unfolding of machine logic in the world, we find even more prospective instrumentalities under way.
In this respect (and in contrast to Simondon), the instruments of citizen sensing are not instrumental enough, since they seem to guarantee an outcome that would foreclose the very undertaking of citizen-sensing practices as concrete experiences. This a priori designation of an outcome reduces not just the instruments and instrumentality but also the instrumental citizens that would materialize through these practices. Although the terminology is different, with this Simondon might agree: the conventional promises of citizen sensing constrict instruments into functional outcomes, a process that forecloses inquiry or experimentation. Here Simondon might be inclined to admit instrumentalism to his analytical tool kit, because this does the work of reclaiming the processes of inquiry and open-endedness that he suggested were more appropriate to understanding and transforming human relations with technology. Shutting down and narrowing inquiry, as Dewey suggests, limits the modes of experience and political engagement that could be possible.
The instrumentalism developed here takes a cue from these pragmatist approaches to experimentation and inquiry and is informed by the open air that James found was necessary to practices of inquiry. “A pragmatist,” as James writes, “turns away from abstraction and insufficiency, from verbal solutions, from bad a priori reasons, from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins.” Instead, pragmatism involves a turn “toward concreteness and adequacy, towards facts, towards action and towards power.” While this is a steer toward a certain kind of (radical) empiricism to which James was partial, it also directs inquiry toward “the open air and possibilities of nature, as against dogma, artificiality, and the pretence of finality in truth.” Open air, as I develop the concept with and beyond James, refers to an operationalized and prospective approach to inquiry. Open air pertains to lived experience, to processes of inquiry as they are unfolding, rather than to doctrines to which inquiry is made to conform. Dewey, expanding on this aspect of James’s work, suggests that instruments, or ideas, become “true instrumentally” through the ways in which they “work.” The working aspects of ideas were far more relevant than the final outcome that might seem to offer up a resolution, such as truth. At the same time, instruments are also “a program for more work, particularly as an indication of the ways in which existing realities may be changed.” Open-air instruments and instrumentalisms, then, are tool kits for practice; they are able to generate change, above and beyond a static pronouncement of truth.
Expanding on James and Dewey, I move from the unfolding of logical instruments to practices with technical instruments to suggest that instruments such as citizen-sensing technologies are more than a means to an end. As it turns out, it is only by undertaking practices and engagements with and through instruments that contingent relations and capacities begin to materialize, demonstrating that instrumentality has never been quite so straightforward as it might have seemed. This is the scope of open-air instrumentalisms: to demonstrate how sociotechnical practices are set to work and how they make and change worlds. While Dewey sought to clear up the confusion about the terminology and meaning of instrumentalism, I work with this productive dissonance to query the trajectories and outcomes of sensing instruments. I propose the term open-air instrumentalisms as a way to capture this revisiting and reworking of instrumentality within the context of DIY environmental sensors. This concept and term is about more than logical propositions, as it also captures the prospective qualities of instruments and instrumentalities.
The open air, then, punctures any closed logic of instrumentalisms. Despite the imperative directions of guidebooks and tool kits that would suggest a quick passage from flat-pack cosmology to actionable gadget, you will find there is not a simple way to bend technology to your will. Instead, here are the tool kit, the instructional, the guidebook, and the instrument unfolding into the open air of instrumental experimentalism. Rather than instrumental reason giving way to a singular means–end trajectory, these are open-air instrumentalisms that, when put to work in the world as practice, concrete experience, and contingency, engage with and generate multiple inhabitations. Instruments not only contribute to organizing inquiry in particular ways; they also distribute inquiry across multiple entities and relations, creating new communities of inquiry—something I will address later. Instruments are involved in tuning and in-forming environments, worlds, and political subjects that further trouble the usual scope of instrumentality: those instrumental citizens.
By drawing on multiple and diverging thinkers, I expand on the notion of what instruments and instrumentality might mean or generate. There are many different uses of the term instrument across these thinkers, and they are by no means synonymous. The instruments of Simondon are merely functional technologies; the instruments of James and Dewey are theories and ideas put to work in the world; the instruments of Whitehead become part of practices of inquiry; and the instruments of Barad expand out to relational, material, and entangled apparatuses. If Whitehead’s remark at the beginning of this section has much to say about science and instruments, it says less about the subjects caught up in these instrumental practices. Who or what are these instrumental entities? If “citizens” are monitoring environments with sensing instruments, do they become instrumental citizens? Are they instrumentalized in the conventional or in the pragmatist sense? And do they realize new political competencies through their instrumentalist practices, which theorists of feminist technoscience and indigenous and critical race theory develop as strategies of retooling technologies?
If Dewey’s and James’s sense of the instrumental were applied to the citizen, it might mean that the democratic commitments of political subjects would always be put to work, and that it is through this work that the very meaning of citizen would come to have consistency. The work of citizens, then, continues to generate the reality and community of citizens as well as the transformed instruments that would further spur this work along. Instrumental citizens in this sense are not rationalized actors completing a designated task—the reductive or functional sense of instrumental; rather, they are contingent subjects involved in making and remaking—tooling and retooling—political life. Indeed, as ongoing work in environmental justice has demonstrated, the retooling of instruments and devices occurs along with the transformation of politics and relations in order to work toward less polluting environments.
A citizen-sensing kit as much comprises citizens as sensors. Yet the “citizen” is not an entity that can be wired and coded in the same way as a microcontroller. Instead, drawing on Simondon, we could say that what the citizen is or could become is “in-formed” by sensors as well as the extended milieus in which they operate. In this sense, we have already begun to recompose the citizen-sensing tool kit even before beginning a process of assembly. The “citizen” in these citizen-sensing tool kits is meant to be an action-based entity. This is a citizen that is imagined to be an empowered and effective technophile. The instrumented citizen is an instrumental citizen, in the usual sense of realizing a stated outcome through direct and efficient action.
We might further question the seeming logic and expediency of sensing instruments and instrumental citizens to effect change, which is a narrative that depends on leaving many aspects of technical and political engagement unquestioned. In this sense, it is worth pausing for a moment to examine in more detail the usual diagram of how citizen-sensing action is meant to unfold and how the designations and expressions of citizens and citizenship are meant to be performed through sensing technologies. For instance, Plume Labs, which has developed a wearable Flow sensor as well as an AI-powered app for forecasting air pollution, focuses on the ways in which citizens as sensors might monitor their own air to protect themselves and their families from high pollution levels. While they suggest that collective undertakings are possible, Plume manages and oversees the collected and collective data in such a way that they are not readily available for use and analysis by communities. In this sense, personal action and protection are emphasized and collective action is deferred into a process and space defined by the technology company. This arrangement might assure user-consumers that by monitoring their air, they are not sliding into the dangerous depths of citizen activism but rather are maintaining a more neutral engagement with technology to protect themselves and their families. The site of engagement becomes a more nuclear and normative undertaking less inclined to the sprawling affiliations of democratic communities beyond the family.
The configuration of subjects is one of vulnerable and responsible family members managing their personal air space in a politically neutral manner. The air here becomes more like a Sloterdijkian atmosphere of air conditioning and security—a space of instrumental control rather than open-air instrumentalisms. Citizen-sensing instruments are enrolled to facilitate this management, thereby shoring up a particular citizen-as-consumer engagement with the problem of air pollution. This is far from an isolated example of how many consumer-based air pollution technologies are now being promoted, whether in the European Union or the United States, China or India, the focus is on managing and protecting oneself and one’s family members in controlled personal spaces. Awareness, especially personal awareness, is the way in which instruments and instrumentality are organized. Yet this raises the question of what awareness is meant to spark into being. These “aware” subjects are not directed to intervene in current operating conditions to undertake democratic struggle toward more breathable collective atmospheres. They are instead made aware so as to better manage their own individual exposure. Of note here is that citizen-sensing technologies for monitoring air pollution are increasingly shifting away from DIY and makerly technologies toward finished consumer products. Instruments in this context do not as readily give rise to a Deweyan process of experimentation and inquiry. Instead, they potentially direct consumer-users to a series of corrective or adaptive actions not dissimilar to a cybernetic logic that Simondon critiqued for its functional approach to technical objects, which overlooked the ways in which technologies undergo processes of concretization.
Here the citizen also becomes utility-like in the imaginings of citizen-sensing technologies—able to singularly and instrumentally effect change. But the reflections of Dewey suggest that we might consider other forms of instrumentality in relation to politics. Following the pragmatists, Antonia Majaca and Luciana Parisi also suggest that instrumentality is not instrumental, at least not in the way it is usually conceived. In their estimation, through a more thorough engagement with the logic of technē, it might be possible to go about “reversing the very understanding of instrumentality,” which could be undertaken “by fully acknowledging instrumentality, politicizing it, and ultimately transcending it.” In their estimation, transcending instrumentality entails recognizing that subjects are also contingent, and this contingency is where the political materializes through concrete practices. With this understanding of the instrumental formation of political subjects, instrumental citizens become entities that are in formation and are involved in world-making activities. Because subjects materialize through modes of instrumentality, they cannot be fixed into absolute categories. The specific hold of instrumentality in a given situation involves the working through of a prospective engagement, which is the formation of the political. A further elaboration upon the concept of an instrumental citizen would then involve taking up Dewey’s notion of “instrumental experimentalism” as the putting to work of what a political subject is or could be. This is less a fixed mode of engagement and more an opening into how the citizen as attractor and force can stir us to new purposes, as previously discussed.
While Dewey opted to use instrumentalism as a term interchangeable with pragmatism, he also worked with experimentalism as another term and concept that attempted to explain and capture the ideas he was developing. In science and technology studies, experiments and experimentality are frequently discussed to describe the way in which these open-ended practices of inquiry and engagement take place. These are not technical solutions but rather provisional practices that generate new approaches to technologies and new engagements with politics. Hence the relevance of this discussion for understanding what a citizen is and might become. The instrumental is at first seemingly similar to the experimental, because it is a contingent and open-ended process. However, it is different in that it is a practice guided by ideas, technologies, and tool kits that seek to do a certain amount of work, and even possibly (political) transformation, in the world. Instrumentalism is not a test for the sake of a test or an experiment for the sake of an experiment. The fact that instruments and instrumentalities are unlikely to fulfill their stated aim is not a limit but rather crucial to the process of working out instruments and ideas for further development. As James writes when discussing the work of Dewey, “theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest.” This may explain why Dewey used the term instrumentalism as well as instrumental experimentalism to describe this putting to work of instruments. Experimental describes the contingent and open-ended modes of action, but instruments are the things and concepts put to work and reconfigured through experimental processes.
The point of revisiting and reworking instrumentalism as open-air instrumentalisms is not to recuperate a reductive notion of technical or political action but instead to consider how neither citizens nor machines have ever been instrumental in the usual sense of the word. The adoption of a citizen-sensing instrument does not make for a more direct realization of a citizen-scientific or citizen-political impact. Instead, it organizes modes of inquiry, social relations, facts, and worlds. Instrumentality, then, describes the instrumental commitments that are taken up in distinct practices as well as what these generate in the open air. The logic of sensing that is used to promote these technologies as a direct solution to environmental pollution could be understood as a form of instrumental reason that diminishes a more contingent and experimental understanding of instruments and instrumentalities as well as the practices of scientific and political inquiry. Instrumental reason is bound to bend, instruments will unfold through contingent operations, political projects and struggles will become activated and entangled with instrumental experimentalism.
When taken up and put to work, the instruments and instrumentalities of citizen-sensing technologies break down, open up, and are retooled through particular practices and communities. Instrumental citizens in this sense are political subjects (which are not necessarily always human subjects) that are working through the problem of sensing environmental pollution to make more livable worlds. Here it might be possible to suggest that technical objects could be granted “citizenship in a world of significations,” as has previously been discussed through Simondon. However, such citizenship is never settled but is instead undertaken through the differential and multidirectional practices of human and nonhuman instrumental citizens as they sense, rework, and retool tool kits and their worlds.