I AM FREQUENTLY ASKED whether Citizen Sense research is empowering people and communities through the participatory research undertaken on citizen-sensing technologies. The short answer is, not as directly as that. The medium answer is, we should always query the uncomplicated connection between technology and empowerment. The long answer is, it might be advisable to review this how-to exploration, which seeks to trouble and rework the ways in which tool kits—and empowerment—are constituted. Or, as Stengers has suggested, it might also be possible to consider how to undertake the “empowerment of a situation,” which involves “giving a situation that gathers the power to force those who are gathered to think and invent.” This how-to guide explains how it might be possible to inhabit yet also to transform the ways in which these technologies operate, through open-air instrumentalisms, and to seek out creative forms of misuse that challenge the assertion that technology made this happen or that Sensor = Outcome. In this way, it might also be possible to reorient the usual and primary attention away from how to make a sensor talk to a platform toward more open-ended engagements with these technologies. Such reorienting and retooling practices challenge the usual configurations of action—and empowerment. They also rework the political relations that are made possible. This is a way in which to retool tool kits.
When using the term retool, I am inevitably drawing on work from feminist theory and technoscience to propose how to work against the grain of dominant technological narratives. Retooling is a practice that is honed through struggle: struggle with and against the standard operating procedures. Retooling is a way to transform and invent technoscientific practices. It asks how tool kits are configured, how they are operationalized, which subjects are drawn into their modes of action, which relations are configured, and which worlds are made and sustained. These are questions of process and mechanism: the how of the how-to so that further engagement and working through of instruction and procedure might find the flex points for transformation.
While this text could have undertaken a survey of citizen-sensing and citizen-science tool kits, I have deliberately opted not to follow the categorical impulse but instead sought to examine the imperative mood and the instrumental mode of action. Rather than pursue a definitional or taxonomic study of practices or tool kits, this text has suggested that tool kits as instruments and instrumentalities give way to inquiry and action that in turn transform the instruments in use. Categories could only ever serve as a provisional way to understand these tool kits and practices. Indeed, the more interesting tool kits incorporate contingency as a crucial part of how they provide resources for organizing action.
Many other tool kits, DIY projects, and community projects have traversed this space of instruction, contingency, action, and alternative engagement. From the Center for Urban Pedagogy’s Making Policy Public pamphlet series, which explains and guides publics through complex legal issues like housing and worker’s rights, to A Guidebook for Alternative Nows, which collects examples of alternative economies and engagement experiments, to Zach Blas’s manual for “queer technological strategy” to the 3D Additivist Cookbook for cooking up alternative inhabitations in troubling times, a wide range of tool kits and guidebooks are experimenting with the form of the instructional and the imperative to work toward more democratic operating conditions.
There are also much different ways of engaging with DIY and technology that can contribute to community projects of addressing environmental pollution and public health. Alondra Nelson has described how the Black Panther Party undertook projects in DIY community health activism, which offered much different ways of mobilizing (medical) technology and political subjects in the interests of social justice. These practices can be ways of transforming technologies and social relations. They make alternative worlds through attending to the political subjects and communities of inquiry involved in open-air instrumentalisms, where experimenting with the conditions and potential of altered technoscientific arrangements can also undo power structures that contribute to health inequalities.
The point of interrogating instrumentality in this way has been to consider how citizen-sensing technologies could be described as instrumental in the limited sense: as merely functional and utensil-like, as Simondon has suggested. Politics as scripted through these engagements could also be seen to fall into the trap of a more reductive instrumentality. But as this discussion has suggested, there is more to an understanding and practice of instruments and instrumentalities than might initially have been suspected. Instrumentalisms become prospective in the effects they might generate and the relations they might inform. They are formed in the open air, as open-air instrumentalisms. Instrumentalities generate new political inhabitations. The tool kit and the instructional are not necessarily expressive of the starkly functional or extractive form of instrumentality, because instruments develop through engaged and contingent practices. Instrumentalism involves setting in motion, operationalizing, and potentially transforming. Instruments—whether in the form of concepts or sensors—are instrumental to the unfolding, the doing, and the transforming, where other ways of living and other processes are articulated. I have suggested here that How to Do Things with Sensors is a project that moves from the imperative mood and reductive instrumentality to one that might generate more contingent open-air instrumentalisms, particularly in relation to citizen engagement with environmental-monitoring technologies. This reworking of citizen-sensing technology and technical relations intends to counter the sinister veneer of Silicon Valley and the smug tyranny of the tech bro, where normativity, exclusion, and reductive technical relations contribute to unjust and undemocratic practices, relations, and worlds.
You might find that once you start to look for instruments, you find them everywhere: much like Haraway’s air pump, they are at work in-forming and re-constituting subjects and objects, nature and culture, conditions of fact and knowledge, public and private, legitimacy and illegitimacy, authority and marginality. This guidebook suggests that it would be advisable to approach these instruments through the concept and practice of open-air instrumentalisms, where experimental approaches as well as new technical relations, modes of inquiry, forms of political engagement, environmental commitments, and ways of world-making might materialize. In this sense, How to Do Things with Sensors interrogates the diagram of citizen sensing as mode of technological engagement that is meant to lead to specific political effects. Drawing on pragmatism, feminist technoscience, indigenous and critical race theory and practice, this how-to guide develops an approach to sensors where methods, practice, ideas, and theory are co-constituted, embodied, and retooled. How to do things is to ask how to transform things. It is to inquire how to experience and influence worlds. Instruments and instrumentalities do not offer up guaranteed ends but rather unfold operations that are ways of engaging with ideas, technologies, relations, entities, environments, and worlds. Dewey referred to instruments as ideas that were capable of “organizing future observations and experiences” rather than “reporting and registering past experiences.” Instrumentalisms, in this sense, are propositional. If there is action to be undertaken, they are in some way focused on making possible interventions and change. This is an approach that focuses on “consequent phenomena” rather than historical facts and is what Dewey would refer to as something “revolutionary in its consequences.”
Here’s what you might have learned in the process of following these instructions: how-to is not a rule but a proposition. Its imperative mood is one of obligation and even urgency more than command. How-to is an instrumental project, where—following Dewey—meaning arises through contingent operations that make and remake (democratic) worlds. How-to enables modes of inquiry, action, and conduct. How-to is experimental in its searching after ways to address problems. How-to demonstrates how distinct ideas and instrumental actions are tied to different communities of inquiry and possibilities for transforming and retooling action. While the how-to might initially seem to present straightforward instructions pointing toward guaranteed results, the how-to approach should necessarily engage with the pitfalls, deviations, and antitriumphalism of undertaking citizen-sensing and environmental-monitoring projects in concrete situations. Such a how-to tool kit, then, is productive of open-air instrumentalisms. It works within the genre of the how-to but also seeks to retool this narrative and technical tool kit in order, as Berlant suggests, “to invent new genres for the kinds of speculative work we call theory.”
Next, you might find that when working with sensors, you can put these considerations of the how-to to work when asking
- 1. how to monitor pollution over time;
- 2. how to teach yourself atmospheric chemistry;
- 3. how to analyze data;
- 4. how to construct evidence;
- 5. how to write a data story;
- 6. how to ring a regulator;
- 7. how to influence policy;
- 8. how to organize a movement;
- 9. how to remake environmental relations;
- 10. how to build more just worlds.