THE WORLD OF SENSORS is one of amplified connections. Sensors are meant to join up and speed up, while also facilitating and enabling. Whether these functions pertain to adjusting lighting levels or advancing political engagement, a quickening of activity is expected to unfold through sensors. Sensors are embedded in urban infrastructure and surveillance systems, and they are also packaged as makerly kits and citizen-sensing projects. But to get here, you need to follow the instructions. Working with sensors typically involves the uptake of the how-to guide. Citizen sensing requires settling into the instructional mode and the imperative mood. A sensing citizen is a handy subject, an action-oriented and technically equipped actor able to tinker toward new configurations. Behold, the Instrumental Citizen.
Sensors, and the growing use of these devices for citizen-sensing projects, are in some ways part of a wider movement toward the how-to and the do-it-yourself. Handbooks and user’s guides cover topics both technical and philosophical. From YouTube videos providing instruction on how to troubleshoot the use of microcontrollers to handbooks for using and “abusing” the Internet of Things (IoT) to how-to forums and Instructables, the genres and formats of the digital continue to expand and develop into well-used vehicles for technical instruction. How-to guides and instructions are integral to computation. Code is an unfurling of instructions. Algorithms set in place procedures for computational processes. The instructional has intensified its residency in machines.
As the how-to proliferates, and instructions unfold through every aspect of the computational, it would seem worthwhile to ask why the how-to has become one of the prevailing genres of the digital. Why the guide, why now, why in this format? Alongside wondering about the how-to format, this text examines how the instructional approach to sensors contributes to particular ways of inhabiting these devices. How to Do Things with Sensors is as much a question as a set of instructions that asks how things are made do-able with and through sensors. As a guide, it considers how worlds are made sense-able and actionable through the instructional mode of citizen-sensing projects.
Although the how-to guide is now prevalent within digital spaces, it is certainly not unique to the realm of the digital. Handbooks advise how to live forever, how to live on Mars, how to meet aliens, how to conquer the internet, how to make a million, how to build a rocket, how to clone a sheep, how to split the atom, and how to save the planet. And this list is just a cursory scan. How-to guides run into the tens of thousands. The how-to guide not only outlines procedures for attaining the grandiose or epic but also informs on the banal and the necessary. There are how-to guides for foraging for food after a disaster and for learning handicrafts. How-to guides also provide instructions for organizing political campaigns, for undertaking direct action, and for following step-by-step programs toward greater democratization.
One particular subgenre of the how-to guide that is of particular interest for the purposes of this study is what might be considered a more radical or countervailing approach to instructions. These how-to guides span from instructions for surviving in a world with which one is at odds to how-to instructions for working and reworking digital technology toward engagements beyond the usual privileged actors and how-to strategies for making worlds that are more livable. These how-to guides are far from simplistic in their assessment of the problem at hand or in the remedying approaches that might be attempted. Instead, they often undertake a necessary and powerful diagnosis of inequality, injustice, and distress and of how to combat or circumvent these conditions. In this way, the how-to guide is not merely instructional for assembling gadgets; it is also a life guide, suggesting how best to carry on. Still other how-to guides are written as counterinstructionals. Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing uses the how-to guide as a way to demonstrate the multiple strategies by which women’s writing is dismissed, derided, appropriated, and erased. Her point is not to facilitate or encourage these practices but rather to expose the habitual, recurring, pernicious, if often implicit ways in which some voices are excluded so as to amplify the writings of the privileged. How-to guides express political commitments. They are not merely a universal set of skills for anyone to follow, even for a seemingly accessible technology such as citizen-sensing devices. They can also serve as normative devices, reproducing unjust political structures and relations. Or they can provide resources for breaking with and addressing inequities.
How-to guides often are organized as or accompanied by tool kits that serve as the essential components for configuring and materializing instructions. Tool kits are the thing to be constructed, gathered, and mobilized; they are the instrument to achieve particular effects. Astonishing capabilities are often channeled through tool kits, from suitcases and bug-out bags that can save the world (or save oneself at the end of the world) to ad hoc solar power setups and moonshine installations. At least since the 1960s, how-to guides have been bound up with a seemingly countercultural ethos, where access to tools might rework living environments. Some of these kits and instructions yield the unprogrammatic, the unexpected, the incommensurate, and the incomputable. Other DIY projects present “tactical” strategies for intervening within the current operating systems of technoscience, to realize more socially just or equitable relations.
Within this realm of the instructional, it seems the manifesto has given way to the tool kit. The manifesto form of often dogmatic proclamations has yielded to a more open-ended organization of practices. Radical tool kits in particular gather instruments and resources that serve as practical philosophies and modes of organizing in difficult circumstances. There are speculative “feel-tank kits” that are meant to retool political engagements and imaginaries; “killjoy survival kits” for living a feminist life and surviving ongoing adversity; and radical pedagogy kits for sharing skills, lore, and community-organizing techniques. At the same time and in a diverging way, policy recommendations now often circulate in the form of tool kits, a format that governments and NGOs use to advocate for the accessibility of the policy-making process. Such an approach runs the risk of shoring up power structures, while presenting governance as a more transparent and DIY process. In this way, tool kits can be shape-shifting genres that variously provide guidance for rerouting, or reinforcing, sociopolitical practices.
While the focus here is on the how-to in relation to digital technologies, especially environmental sensors and citizen-sensing projects, an extensive assortment of instructionals and tool kits then informs this study. A history of how-to and instructional guides would be an interesting project indeed, although this is not within the scope of this research. Instead, I examine the instructions and instructional approach that inform and develop through the configuration and use of DIY sensing technologies. In working through the instructional approach, I consider in what ways how-to guides not only enable technical engagements with citizen-sensing devices but also provide distinct material formats and political practices for addressing environmental problems. Tool kits offer ways not just to make sensors but also to construct social–political worlds.
The procedural approach could be seen to promise an outcome of sorts. Yet what happens when instructions are imperfectly followed or ignored? And what occurs if the promised effects do not unfold as expected? The how-to guide could be encountered at once as a set of helpful instructions and as a potentially overly programmatic mode of engagement. The how-to as easily moves from the how-to-do to the do-it-this-way-or-else. The how-to could be a reversioning of cybernetic command and control: follow these steps to a certain outcome, not through an overarching program of control, but through your own pursuit of edifying instructions. Here technology could close in on itself, and instrumentality could lead to the bad sort of functionality that philosophers engaged with technology have warned against. Technologies in this register are seen to fulfill mere functions, and as Simondon has suggested, this master–slave condition can overlook or suppress the relations that unfold across environments, subjects, and zones of energetic and cultural transfer.
The how-to could then be seen to be expressive of an imperative mood. The procedure and the following of instructions are bundled up with a pedagogy infused with soft commands and imperative verbs. The digital engenders a directional approach. The how-to makerverse assembles as a hub of instruction. Image tiles organize into task sessions; search bars open up into multidimensional cosmologies of the how-to; the ten-minute step-by-step guide promises incremental if expedient accomplishment; and the soothing virtual confab of video narrators begins with the ever familiar entry point “Hi, guys, I’m here to show you how to . . .” The digital and instrumental citizen who enters the process of the how-to is not just learning how to make and use technology but is also entering into modes of procedure, instruction, implementation, and instrumentality that guide digital participation.
This text engages with the how-to and the imperative mood as key aspects of how citizen-sensing technologies and practices are made and organized. How to Do Things with Sensors is, on one hand, written as a response to the many requests I have received to write a how-to guide for undertaking citizen sensing. It provides a handbook—of sorts—with tips and pointers for carrying out citizen sensing, while recounting experiences of initially testing sensors for environmental monitoring and then deploying these in the field. On the other hand, I also reflect on the how-to as a genre and approach and ask, Why is this mode seemingly most effective for engaging with digital technologies? What are the opportunities of the how-to approach, what are its fizzy promises, and what are its unseen pitfalls? Rather than describing the phenomenon of the how-to through a distanced commentary, however, I work through instructions and approaches to building kit, to monitoring environments, to analyzing data, to communicating evidence, and to attempting to realize political change through a collaborative project that I lead, Citizen Sense, which has researched citizen-sensing technologies and practices since 2013. I consider how protocols and tool kits, practical manifestos and political programs, inform and materialize as citizen-sensing projects and practices. By attending to the how-to guide as a particular orientation to technology, I suggest that engaging with tool kits and guides is also a way of working through, reworking, and transforming the possibilities of technical, political, and environmental practice. In this way, I ask how an engagement with tool kits can become a way to retool approaches to instruments, instrumentality, and digital worlds in the making.
The practices involved in undertaking citizen-sensing projects require not just putting together assorted electronics but also attending to complex configurations of technology, politics, environments, and modes of citizenship. This examination of the how-to and the tool kit does not reify making and craft but rather offers a theory of practice and action oriented toward change. This text attends to that which is often left out of many how-to guides. By engaging with what might be seen to be on the margins of technical interest, I hope to rework how citizen-sensing technologies are usually encountered, less as instruments able to implement certain ends, and more as openings into rethinking socioenvironmental potential and technopolitical relations. Can instruments generate instrumentality, not of the positivist sort, but more of the pragmatist type, where as John Dewey has suggested instrumentality necessarily requires an experimental and contingent set of engagements? Instruments as ideas require what William James has called the “open air” to unfold as lived experiences and processes. Indeed, as Cornel West has pointed out, pragmatism concerns the contingencies of subjects, collectives, and the world as well as theories and knowledge, which in their more pliable formation could be able to respond to social crises and democratic struggles.
By reading the pragmatists sideways through engagements with feminist technoscience and indigenous and critical race theory, and by working with instruments in practice, I suggest that it might be possible to reengage with instrumentalism beyond its usual extractive and expedient registers to consider expanded relations of effect and effectiveness. I situate this engagement within the open air of inquiry to express the sociopolitical constitution of instruments as much as to relay how devices are situated in and make worlds. The how-to is a proposition for open technology, which, as Gilbert Simondon suggests, can be a way to engage with machines beyond fixed outcomes as well as an opening into alternative configurations of humans, nonhumans, and relations. “How-to” here becomes an invitation to make, organize, orchestrate, conjure, and sustain people, technology, and worlds toward openings rather than prescribed ends. While ends might inform the starting points for particular technopolitical practices, they inevitably change along the way. An instrumental proposition becomes a site of transformation. This guide proposes how to retool the how-to approach, not to proceed toward certain outcomes, but rather to work for open engagements. I call this approach open-air instrumentalisms. Retooling is a practice in open-air instrumentalism.