Hyperrhiz 22

How To Do Things with Sensors, by Jennifer Gabrys

David M. Rieder
NC State University

Citation: Rieder, David M.. “How To Do Things with Sensors, by Jennifer Gabrys.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 22, 2020. doi:10.20415/hyp/022.r04

Keywords: sensors, pragmatism, empiricism, experimentation, environment.

Gabrys, Jennifer. How To Do Things with Sensors. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019.

Based only on the title of her book, you might expect How to Do Things with Sensors to be a practical, how-to manual, maybe like one in the Getting Started series published by Make Community LLC (2019). But if you know Jennifer Gabry’s work with the Citizen Sense Project, or her book, Program Earth: Environmental Sensing Technology and the Making of a Computational Planet (Minnesota UP, 2016), you won’t be surprised to read that her interest in the genre of the how-to becomes an interrogation of its conventional, instrumentalist limits. In this book, Gabrys “retools” the how-to genre toward an approach to experimental instrumentalism that transforms practice into an ongoing, sociopolitical and creative act. The book draws on the ideas from pragmatist and radical empiricist philosophy (William James, John Dewey, and Charles Sanders Pierce), the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, feminist and eco-feminist theory (Karen Barad and Donna Haraway), and indigenous theory. This short, 96-page book in U Minn’s Forerunner: Idea First series will appeal to scholars and students in a wide range of fields including feminist theory, digital media theory, practice-based research, queer theory, indigenous studies, digital humanities, digital rhetoric (my field), and environmental studies.

The book is divided among six chapters that push against the conventional characteristics of the genre — namely, its instrumentalist approach and its reliance on the imperative voice to order its readers and users toward closed-minded approaches to what technologies like sensors offer. In the first chapter, “How to Construct Tool Kits,” Gabrys argues against the belief that working with technologies for monitoring the environment tends toward limited, instrumentalist engagements with the sociopolitical realm. In other words, she counters the worry that these technologies cannot be deployed in ways that support a creative or experimental ethos of practice-based research that leads citizens toward deeper engagements with the sociopolitics of self and society. To get things started, Gabrys offers an alphabetical list of 64 kits and technologies - both current and sunsetted kits - for monitoring air quality. The list of kits and technologies leads Gabrys to focus on her association of tool kits with what she calls flat-pack cosmologies. Stretching the context in which Alfred North Whitehead and then Isabelle Stengers have used Whitehead’s concept of cosmology, Gabrys argues that tool kits can be valued “as a distributed and connected system of forms and works, including the ways in which entities develop, how relations join up, how societies materialize, and how these varying components unfold” (20).

From flat-pack cosmologies, Gabrys’ chapter then turns to a ten-part how-to about tool kits for monitoring the environment. The ten parts comprising this how-to read like a FAQ, with each part titled as a question paired with a somewhat conversational answer, which plays well with Gabrys’ experimental and open approach to design and implementation. This section begins with the question, “What is a toolkit?,” includes other questions like “How do you make a working sensor?,” and ends with “How do you create a community monitoring project?” In the final two pages of the chapter, Gabrys stresses that her how-to is “far from definitive,” and that the “composition of a tool kit is neither fixed nor complete,” which are points that reinforce her focus on the open-ended ethos of experimentation that she is promoting.

In the second chapter, “How to Connect Sensors,” Gabrys begins by underscoring the ways in which working with sensor technologies leads inevitably to an ongoing process of testing, upgrading, and revision. Gabrys admits that her position in How to Do Things with Sensors is not as the expert offering advice to the amateur. She characterizes herself as “an amateur connected to extended communities of practice” (30). Like so many of us practicing what Massimo Banzi once called the Arduino Way, she works perhaps a bit like the digital griot about whom Adam Banks has written, or like the shaman about which Sean Morey has written, both of whom represent a process of digital creativity that could be characterized as open-air instrumentalist. Gabrys writes, “it is exactly the DIY aspects of craft, making, and tinkering that can generate different experiences of embodiment, the everyday., and collective politics” (30).

Related to the DIY approach that Gabrys underscores in this chapter is her recognition that while the how-to genre, written in the imperative voice, can lead its followers to the sense that just following the directions leads to empowerment and success (32), the reality is more like an iterative process that continues toward an outside. Writing about “misfires,” or small problems that tend to arise while working on DIY projects, Gabrys explains, “misfires could . . . be a particular entry point into understanding how open-air instrumentalisms take hold, as swerving experiments with instruments” (37). Adding to the arguments from theorists about the ways in which technologies or instruments are more than descriptive, Gabrys writes, “instruments are world-making. They are constructive and performative of the worlds that they would detect, measure, and act upon” (37). The how-to imperative mood may imply a straight-forward, follow-the-numbers approach to success, but it inevitably leads to flashes of an open through which creative inspiration and experimental practices can arise, tapping into an ethos toward the open.

After establishing the counter-methodological approach that she is promoting related to her interests in an open-air approach to experimentation and engagement, Gabrys focuses on one particular air-monitoring kit, the Air Quality Egg, which was an out-of-the box kit for monitoring air quality. As Gabrys explains at the end of the chapter, the “practice of making prototypes and setting up off-the-shelf sensors becomes a way to work through the instructions, promises, functions, and malfunctions of these devices. It also generates open-air instrumentalisms” (51).

In the third chapter, “How to Devise Instruments,” Gabrys expands on the “multidirectional character” of Whitehead’s assertion that “every science must devise its own instruments” (53). She explains that Whitehead’s claim “suggests not only that tools are required for distinct scientific practices but also that scientific practices are formed through devising and using distinct instruments” (53). Expanding on this claim, Gabrys explains that, in citizen-scientific practices, it is not only the tool or instrument on which we should focus but “the mode of engagement and relationality set in motion” (54). Echoing one of Bruno Latour’s arguments, Gabrys reminds her readers that “instruments are invariably involved with social relations” (56). For this reason, and related to both Latour’s and Whitehead’s contributions to technology studies, the author invites us to think about the choices we make regarding the tools or instruments required for a project change “the possibilities of encounter, engagement, and relation” (57).

A few pages beyond these points, Gabrys offers a clear and thorough definition of her open-air approach. She explains that her approach is based partly on William James’ pragmatist turn away “from abstraction... from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins.” Instead, it turns “towards concreteness ... towards facts, towards action and towards power” (James 27; Gabrys 62). It is also based partly on John Dewey’s definition of instrumentalism as “a process of experimentation, inquiry, and discovery” (Gabrys 61). She also cites Whitehead, Bruno Latour, and Gilbert Simondon. But with James and Dewey in particular, the following definition of open air and open-air instruments, is described as follows:

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 way in which they ‘work.’ ... 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.” (63)

If the title of her chapter is an implicit question, then the answer is that we devise instruments in a complex, practice-based dynamic of open-air and open-ended experimentation toward provisional ends that hopefully lead to new forms of engagement and inquiry; moreover, devising instruments folds back on its citizen-scientific users, opening them up, too, to new engagements with self, community, and the environment.

In the chapter, “How to Build Networks,” Gabrys explains how the hands-on or practical, instrumentalist mode (and imperative mood) that attends the how-to genre occludes us from a deeper understanding of the vast and dynamic network of relations to which any particular kit or sensor is embedded. Citing William James and then Haraway for backing, she underscores the ways in which technical practices are inextricably linked and networked. Gabrys writes, “Constructing tool kits and connecting sensors are practices that further expand into techniques for building networks. Getting practical is always an encounter with and a formation of relations” (74). Gabrys underscores this opening point with an example of the ways in which a sensor, when added to a citizen-sensing initiative to monitor some aspect of the environment, is essentially transformed into a far more complex object: “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” (75).

The rest of the chapter is divided among three sections. In the first, “Communities of Inquiry,” Gabrys cites Charles Sanders Pierce’s and John Dewey’s notions of communities of inquiry, which describe “the way in which concrete practices of inquiry generate realities that are particular to groups undertaking such work” (76). With this pragmatist concept in mind, Gabrys underscores the ways in which the how-to process is transformed from a relatively simple mode of tinkering to something world-making: “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” (77). At the end of this section, she asks and answers, “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” (78). Making and the practices associated with it have impacts and that go well beyond a fetishized approach to action.

In the second section, “Expanding Practices of the How-To,” Gabrys offers a ten-part questionnaire that is meant to help attune citizen-sensing makers to the ways in which technical practices and solutions can be integrated into and transform (or are transformed by) existing community monitoring networks. The questions are part of a logbook that Gabrys uses in her work with the Citizen Sense Project.

In the third and final section, “From Makeverse to Pluriverse,” Gabrys argues against the tendency to see making-as-action as an end in itself. Citing the pragmatists on whom she has relied in other sections her book, the author counter-argues that “action for action’s sake is an empty project” (84). To act or practice or make is “the operationalization of ideas” (84). Recognizing this connection to idea, community, and world is how the how-to’s imperative to act can be reconciled with the complex networks in which a practice is linked. Gabry’s concludes the chapter by underscoring the extent to which tools and instruments unfold along a complex set of distributed and relational contexts: “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” (86).

The last two chapters are considerably shorter than the first four. In the penultimate, 4-page chapter, “How to Test Resistance,” Gabrys combines the meanings of electrical and political resistance in a way that resonates with her argument for open-air approaches to both technology and practice-based research. She begins with an anecdote that serves as a pivot to her argument against distanced, unbiased academic research. Citing Donna Haraway’s “modest witness,” Gabrys writes, “the very perception that inquiry involves standing back and letting events take their course . . . Is a gendered and privileged way or organizing inquiry that allows some people and actions to recede from view to generate universality and objectivity, while others are branded as illegitimate because their presence jams the signal of objectivity (87). As she develops this point further, citing Karen Barad and then Dewey, she states, “observing is acting” (88), which is an idea that resonates well with her open-air instrumentalist approach to making. As she has been arguing throughout How to Do Things with Sensors, while the how-to may be expressed in an imperative voice, thereby following instrumentalist ends, “it is also a vector of transformation” (90). As such, it leads to open-air instrumentalisms that may encounter resistances. She concludes, “Testing resistance, then, is an important way in which to keep your tool kits well tuned and ready for diverse modes of action, and even activism” (90).

In the final chapter, “How to Retool Tool Kits,” which is only a few pages longer than the penultimate one, Gabrys explains that her 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” (91). For Gabrys, when we shift our making practices toward open-air engagements, the reorientation and retooling can “challenge the usual configurations of action - and empowerment” (91). Gabrys adds that they can also retool political relations. This is what Gabrys means by retooling tool kits.

Gabrys reminds us that rather than having offered us a conventional how-to book, she has retooled the expectations of the genre in order to examine “the imperative mood and he instrumental mode of action” (92). She goes on to explain that she “has suggested that tool kits as instruments and instrumentalities give way to inquiry and action that in turn transform the instruments in use” (92). She then explains that “many other tool kits, DIY projects, and community projects” have worked incorporated contingency and something akin to her open-air approach. She lists a few including A Guidebook for Alternative Nows, Zach Blas’s Gay Bombs: User’s Manual, and the 3D Additivist Cookbook. These and many others “are experimenting with the form of the instructional and the imperative to work toward more democratic operating conditions” (93). She also mentions projects cited by Alondra Nelson in Body and Soul, like a DIY community project for health activism sponsored by the Black Panther Party. Gabrys argues that projects like these “make alternative worlds through attending to the political subject and communities of inquiry involved in open-air insrumentalisms” (93).

In the last couple of pages, Gabrys summarizes what we have learned about the how-to, which she offers as an anaphoric list that includes the following: how-to is “not a rule but a proposition”; how-to is “an instrumental project, where . . . meaning arises through contingent operations that make and remake (democratic) worlds; how-to “enables modes of inquiry, action, and conduct; and how-to “is experimental” (95). 

How to Do Thing with Sensors is a relatively condensed argument, considering its complexity. It is one that has the potential to open up its readers to a more nuanced and complex understanding of making and maker culture. As Gabrys point out in the chapter on networks, there is a tendency in maker culture to follow the imperative mood, and that is a persistent mood in many makerspaces. I appreciate how Gabrys’ book offers me a more nuanced and updated way in which to contextualize this tendency. I especially appreciate the ways in which this tendency can be reframed, thanks to Gabrys, with the work of feminist, queer, and indigenous theory as well as process and pragmatist philosophies, which will help me make this kind of work more inclusive and its engagements with audiences and communities more valued.