THE MODES OF ACTION delineated through citizen-sensing technologies, including making and coding, monitoring and data collection, are expressed with and through instruments. The command to “get practical” as well as the exhortation “enough discussion—it’s time to build!” are calls to action that tool kits and guidebooks, the how-to, and the imperative mood organize and deliver. Yet these instrumental imperatives take on a much different meaning once we have reworked and retooled instruments and instrumentalities toward open-air instrumentalisms.
By building and getting “practical,” a shift in current operating conditions is meant to occur. Such instruments and instrumentalities demonstrate how technoscientific practices, instruments, subjects, and worlds are collectively generated, along with an estimation of what the consequences of these instrument-worlds might be. The “practical” is what James refers to as “the distinctively concrete, the individual, the particular and effective as opposed to the abstract, general and inert.” Yet for James, when expanding from pragmatism to radical empiricism, the distinctively concrete refers not merely to things but also to relations. Or as Haraway has suggested in her discussion of yet another instrument, the air pump, “nothing comes without its world.” You might find that “getting practical,” then, requires a greater engagement with the sprawling relations, networks, and worlds that materialize along with instruments.
Constructing tool kits and connecting sensors are practices that further expand into techniques for building networks. Getting practical is always an encounter with and formation of relations. The setting up of one device moves from making or plugging in a sensor and piping data to a platform to connecting with and comparing data across multiple sensor nodes. But this computational approach to networks is only one way of configuring what a network is or might be as it concretizes through citizen-sensing technologies. While it might at first have seemed the primary focus, when taken into the open air, a sensor becomes one small component within a broader project of addressing environmental pollution. Indeed, when it comes to monitoring air quality as an environmental problem, communities are often already mobilized in various ways to document and address pollution. Networks are in the making, but they do not start from zero. Sensors become part of the practice of community organizing, and technical relations transform in the process.
Because networks are already at work in the world, Citizen Sense set out to learn from and alongside existing environmental-monitoring practices. This is a method of first learning about who is monitoring, where, and why. During our research, which involved online searches, attending community meetings, arranging interviews, making site visits, distributing logbooks, hosting mapping workshops, and guiding monitoring walks, we found that communities were monitoring air, water, noise, and traffic by using analog and digital sensors, including particulate sensors, air pollution badges, decibel meters, FLIR infrared cameras, video and photography, and CCTV installations. Communities were also using professional lab testing services, gathering and consulting planning documents, keeping track of changing land surveys, and monitoring policy and regulation as well as petitioning for changes and improvements to environmental controls.
In the course of organizing to address environmental pollution, identifying pollution sources and tools to monitor emissions becomes just one aspect of different modes of inquiry and action. Communities work with existing networks for organizing environmental projects, and they find ways to contribute to and build on these in relation to concerns about environmental pollution. They also contact regulators and policy makers to register complaints about pollution, host community meetings, gather evidence about health conditions, give public testimony, share news on social media, set up teleconferences, contact experts and public figures to extend and amplify networks, and document pollution with assorted sensing technologies. Instrumentalities shift here, where to “build” something involves much more than making a digital device operational. A project to monitor and address air pollution involves building community monitoring networks as ongoing, iterative, and contingent practices that are ways of making and maintaining technical, social, political, and environmental infrastructures.
Perhaps somewhat different from citizen science, citizen sensing has a more specific focus on digital tool kits and devices, so that these organizational, collective, and environmental aspects of monitoring might at first seem to be of lesser importance. However, in this way of configuring what a community monitoring network is or might become, it is clear that sensor tool kits develop into much more than digital gadgets or makerly components. By working with situated environmental problems, citizen-sensing practices and technologies quickly become bound up with wider networks of environments, communities, institutions, and politics. The accuracy of monitoring devices, the monitoring protocols used, the legitimacy of the data, and the agendas of users all come into play as factors influencing the techniques of environmental monitoring and the data gathered. Citizen-sensing practices move from the more reductive diagram put forward by the Air Quality Egg to shift instead into distinct networks of inquiry and political contestation. In the process of making sensors, you might then find that these technologies proliferate along with different types of networks that include the communities of inquiry that make, install, query, and operationalize citizen-sensing technologies.
The practice of building a community monitoring network involves building and drawing on communities of inquiry. The process of taking an instrument into the open air does not merely consist of testing or setting up a device. Instead, a tool kit develops along with networks and inquiries. Community of inquiry is a concept that Peirce developed to describe scientific modes of inquiry and how reality, facts, and truth are settled on through collective processes. This phrase was in turn taken up by other pragmatists, such as Dewey, to describe the way in which concrete practices of inquiry generate realities that are particular to groups undertaking such work. For Dewey, these modes of inquiry become political, informing the possibilities and struggles of democratic life.
The how-to can involve multiple processes of inquiry. But this is not merely an abstract set of instructions followed by a universal subject. Instead, the how-to as inquiry is situated within communities. Along with these formations of communities, inquiry, and facts, it is clear that instruments are also put to work as they transform along with communities of inquiry. This is an expansion of a community of inquiry that includes nonhumans in their technical and fleshy arrangements and instantiations. This approach to the how-to process becomes decidedly less about a maker tinkering with a digital object and more about the collective constitution of worlds. How-to is a way of collectively organizing and asking how to go about something, including how to make a world. How are communities of inquiry organized in relation to environmental problems? What are their practices, tactics, and strategies? But the question does not merely document the occurrence of networks; rather, it also contributes to the prospective formation of networks. This is part of what you might attend to when making a citizen-sensing tool kit.
As a prospective undertaking, inquiry, then, is a mode of transformation. Another approach to the how-to emerges here, where how indicates or asks in what manner, by which means, and how might it be possible to organize ways of life. How indicates procedure, practice, and process. The imperative mood shifts to become less commanding and more aligned with a certain obligation and necessity. In her text Imperatives to Re-imagine the Planet, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak outlines a mode of the imperative that involves recasting the relations of subjects through planetary connections that exceed that which can be designated or made commensurate with subjects. The imperative in this sense is as much an opening as a responsibility, a proposition as well as a commitment to justice. How attends to the mode of engagement and the imperative of attending to what is at stake in attending to and attempting to address (if not redress) planetary troubles.
The how-to, then, opens up to engage with another register of the imperative: the crucial actions undertaken that contribute to lived engagements that remake worlds. Elaborating on this aspect of the how, indigenous theorist and writer Leanne Betasamosake Simpson writes in relation to Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg thought and practice, “It became clear to me that how we live, how we organize, how we engage in the world—the process—not only frames the outcome, it is the transformation. How molds and then gives birth to the present. The how changes us. How is the theoretical intervention.” How is the world-making process that traverses ways of life, modes of politics, registers of experience, and integrities of relation. It forms subjects and environments in its indication toward engagements. It is both a theoretical orientation and an embodied collective practice.
Expanding Practices of the How-To
When using sensors in the open air, the question of how to assemble tool kits then expands into other orders of instrumentality and the how-to. Is this just a matter of distributing air pollution sensors to a community? Or is this very process a way of forming new networks and communities of inquiry? And if it is the latter, then how might it be possible to expand upon the makerly way of encountering sensors to engage with these devices as more fully social technologies that are constituted in and through diverse more-than-makerly social environments? How-to is a question that frames a problem, and that indicates how to act on that problem. The how-to of citizen-sensing tool kits frames the problem of environmental pollution as one of measurable quantities that can be documented and communicated as evidence. Yet this how-to also organizes an expanded set of practices, from how to build a community monitoring network that responds to the sited problem of pollution to how to draw on community expertise and connections and how to gather observations and experiences of environments over time.
As one example of an approach to exploring this expanded configuration of the how-to, Citizen Sense built upon its ongoing practices of meeting with community groups and residents concerned about air quality by developing a “Logbook of Monitoring Practices.” The logbook sought to find another way of assembling the how-to, through collaborative research and development. The logbook was one part of the Citizen Sense Kit that organized techniques to constructively and collectively ask about the how: how to build a tool kit, how to use sensors, how to monitor, how to use data, and how to effect improvements to environments and environmental pollution. This was a process that did not start from a preformed assumption about what technology is or ought to be but rather asked what it could become within a community of inquiry committed to collective engagement with environmental problems. You might find that by asking questions about the how-to with a more low-tech device, such as a logbook, it can be possible to configure an expanded tool kit through a process of collective research.
In this way, our first “Logbook of Monitoring Practices” was developed as a series of questions to ask participants about how they would document the problem of air pollution from fracking. These questions were entry points into the how-to: they asked how to go about monitoring this complex and fraught environmental problem that people had struggled with for years. These questions could be worthwhile to consider when developing your own tool kit that also seeks to build community monitoring networks. The questions include the following.
- 1. What pollutants should be monitored?
From benzene and carbon monoxide to particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, ozone, light, and noise, a number of possible pollutants are associated with the industrial process of fracking. This set of questions also asked what the main pollutants of concern were and what the tool kit should include to document these pollutants.
- 2. Where should monitoring take place?
Pollution can occur throughout the hydraulic fracturing process and across its infrastructure, including at drill sites, well pads, compressor stations, glycol dehydrators, impoundment ponds, and pipelines. Here the logbook asks where the most noticeable emission sources are. It also asks what possible overlooked pollution sources might not be monitored or regulated.
- 3. Who is monitoring?
Some monitoring activities might already exist and could be undertaken by government agencies or industry. This set of questions asks who might be monitoring already, who should be monitoring if this is not taking place, and in what way the data should be accessible.
- 4. What monitoring practices are citizens already undertaking?
When pollution is suspected to be occurring, it is common for nearby residents to begin monitoring to determine whether their air, water, soil, and surrounding environment could be causing harm. By learning more about existing practices, it is possible to incorporate these knowledges and experiences within the development of expanded tool kits.
- 5. What exposures have been noticed or felt?
By asking about how exposures are experienced, as well as the distance between natural gas infrastructure and homes, it can be possible to understand the health effects that could be linked to emissions.
- 6. What is difficult to monitor or can’t be recorded?
In the fracking process, there are a number of unknown substances in drilling fluids, surfactants, slurry, lubricants, and foaming agents. This question asks about uncertainty about environmental pollution as well as the possible limits of monitoring equipment for detecting different substances.
- 7. How should citizen data be used?
Sensors can generate considerable amounts of new data, and when this is multiplied across a community monitoring network, large data sets can accumulate. This set of questions asks how these data could be used, what effect they might have, and whether and how the data should be shared across the community or farther afield.
- 8. What does a day in the life with fracking look like?
By asking participants to document what everyday life with pollution involves, it can be possible to pick up the many activities that could be causing pollution as well as associated effects. Everyday life might also have shifted in relation to the ongoing operations of the industry, and this question captures observed changes to environments over time.
- 9. What monitoring scenarios should be tested?
When monitoring different infrastructure, distinct monitoring setups could be useful to investigate. For instance, it could be worthwhile to monitor the “life of a well” as it is graded, spudded, drilled, and finished as a well pad producing gas. Monitoring might also take place at set distances from the emissions source. This open-ended question asks participants to consider what a monitoring experiment could look like, to develop a research design, and to put it into action.
- 10. What additional observations can be added?
Because residents observe changes to environments over time, and witness the effects of pollution as they take hold, you might find it is useful to ask for photographic documentation of environmental changes as well as any additional observations or questions that can inform the how-to of the tool kit.
These logbook questions for composing a monitoring tool kit are less an absolute list to follow and replicate and more a provisional map of the ways in which different questions—that ask how to rather than instruct how to—can assemble a process of inquiry, a monitoring tool kit, a set of environmental observations, an indication of how to work with data and evidence, and an understanding of community networks and interests. Participants’ contributions included lists of pollutants to monitor, including particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, methane, nitrogen oxides, and noise. These were important starting points for how we then came to build tool kits to be installed near infrastructure. In the logbooks, clear indications emerged of what parts of the fracking infrastructure were of particular concern, including compressor stations and well pads. New information surfaced that might have been overlooked about problems with traffic, including industry trucks, heavy equipment, and helicopters, all serving as the moving infrastructure for hauling fracking materials and waste to and from sites. Logbook contributions also offered detailed suggestions for who should monitor and monitoring scenarios, including to encircle industry sites with monitors and provide real-time data to the public.
The range of environmental events, changes, and pollution that participants added to the logbooks became a complex if informative record for considering how to make a relevant citizen-sensing tool kit. As one participant documenting “a day in the life with fracking” noted, their experience of fracking was characterized by
- Trucks, trucks, and more trucks.
- Traffic tie-ups much more frequent.
- Dust blowing everywhere.
- Hills crisscrossed with pipelines.
- Slow super heavy equipment on oversized trucks.
- 60’ wide swaths of trees coming down to make roads.
- Country lanes being widened and built up completely changing the character.
- Bright lights in the sky at night, near and far.
- More helicopter traffic.
- Noise from drilling, trucks, flaring and compressor stations at all hours.
- More litter on the roadways.
- Torn up roads.
- Torn down barns.
- Not safe to ride a bike on the backroads anymore due to trucks barreling around curves.
- No more rhythm to life—no downtime. No weekends or holidays. Industrial intrusion 24-7-365.
- Neighbors uncomfortable at best, fighting with each other at worst.
- New hospital, donations of gas money to all kinds of causes.
- People spending money on trucks, tractor, polls, additions to their homes.
- Downtown stores going out of business.
- Huge staging sites with parking lots full of trucks, equipment, temporary buildings.
This iterative and collaborative process informed the development of the Citizen Sense Kit, a collection of different air quality monitors that participants used to monitor air quality in relation to hydraulic fracturing activities. At the same time, it was clear that there was much more to undertaking a citizen-sensing project than distributing monitoring technology within a community. The logbook became a tool kit within a tool kit for learning more about the existing networks of monitoring and action as well as the sedimentations of pollution, politics, and conflict within a distinct area. The logbook framed the how-to as a series of questions, which in turn attended to the communities of inquiry that had formed, and could be in the process of forming, through a citizen-sensing project to study air quality.
From Makerverse to Pluriverse
Making is often discussed as a good or end in and of itself, especially in the sphere of digital technology. Action, getting practical, building, working in a hands-on way: these are proposed as remedies to more sclerotic and inert—indeed, even “academic”—approaches to problems. As Lily Irani has observed in relation to an account of a hackathon, there was a notable “bias for action” in the planning for this event, where hackathon participants “sought to intervene in the operations of the world through ‘action’ and ‘making.’” Such emphasis on making and action can constitute a makerly subject who would undertake activities because they seem productive. Yet, as the pragmatists have discussed and critiqued, action for action’s sake is an empty project. Practice is, notwithstanding, the space within which ideas are put to work. It is the very operationalization of ideas—the instrumental aspect of instruments—that the pragmatists stressed was key to how inquiry unfolded and came to have effects, less as the proof of a theory and more as a contingent experience.
In a different but resonant register, Simpson notes that a certain approach to making is part of the integral connection between indigenous knowledge and practices. Making can be “the material basis for experiencing and influencing the world.” Her discussion of making and theory is tied to indigenous contexts, and it also produces a philosophy that differently resonates with the pragmatists’ approach to practice. Yet Simpson further draws out how the collective undertakings of indigenous politics and governance are also embodied and implemented through distinct forms of making, politics, and governance. She writes,
Kinetics, the act of doing, isn’t just praxis; it also generates and animates theory within Indigenous contexts, and it is the crucial intellectual mode for generating knowledge. Theory and praxis, story and practice, are interdependent, cogenerators of knowledge. Practices are politics. Processes are governance. Doing produces more than knowledge.
The more-than-knowledge that doing produces involves the very relations and networks that make worlds—and these are political inquiries and inhabitations. Just as making is not simply for the sake of making or action, doing is about more than a refinement of theories. Doing unfolds ways of being in and being for worlds. Doing can reproduce practices such as settler colonialism. But it can also test, transform, and generate theories in a connected pursuit of the how-to. As forms of doing and action, instruments and instrumentalities are not, in this way, direct lines to certain outcomes but rather constitutive and contingent operations that form worlds.
If we return to the imperative mood, we find that the imperative as procedure here becomes more than instruction. Procedure is always open to revision through ways of living in and making worlds. As the preceding discussion citing Povinelli reminds, making is also about differential ways of being in the world. Making, action, practice, and procedure are about worlds in the plural, the pluralistic universe—or pluriverse—that was the focus of James in his work on radical empiricism. As the “Logbook of Monitoring Practices” example demonstrates, there are multiple ways of monitoring environments and accounting for the effects of pollution through forming tool kits, making sensors, identifying monitoring scenarios, and gathering and analyzing data. How-to can be a way to recognize and support a plurality of modes of inquiry, technical practices, and environmental relations. The makerverse of DIY technologies shifts to become the pluriverse of retooled tool kits. The instruments and instrumentalities of sensors are not a unidirectional unfolding of makerly agency but rather networks-in-formation that generate forms of collective causation. Citizen sensing unfolds not just through sensor devices but also in concrete locations and as collective monitoring projects for documenting and addressing environmental pollution. When building a network, you might find, then, that it is helpful to remember that this is an ongoing practice involved in pluralistic fields of relations.