Instruments and Instrumentality

Speaker: Jennifer Gabrys # University of Cambridge

11th Mar 2019

15:30 - 17:00

CMB Staff Room (6th Floor)

Citizen sensing practices are emerging that use technologies in order to monitor and measure environmental problems such as air pollution, and to generate data that could be actionable for policy and regulation. Yet does the rise of citizen sensing practices and technologies re-inscribe instrumental—or in other words potentially reductive and functional—approaches to citizenship and political engagement? Or, do these new types of instruments in the form of low-cost environmental sensors rework what could be seen as instrumentalist approaches to politics to develop new vocabularies of effect and effectiveness, and to challenge the apparently linear logic of instruments through the more entangled operations of attempting to realise environmental change?

Through a discussion of practice-based and participatory research into air pollution sensing with affected communities, this presentation will address how or whether the instruments of environmental monitoring lead to or disrupt instrumental engagements with citizenship. This presentation outline the ways in which citizen sensing technologies are often presented in their more prototypical and beta stages of use and development. I will then compare these conceptualisations of monitoring technologies with more sustained engagements and testing that attempt to generate environmental data to effect particular types of environmental change. In the process of making new forms of evidence, through emergent technologies and environmental collectives, I suggest that 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. 


Jennifer Gabrys is Professor at the University of Cambridge