Citizen as Sensor: Scale and Neoliberalism in the Nonhuman Turn

For this contribution, I’m posting portions of a short paper I presented at an on-campus workshop centered on new materialisms. The reason I’m doing so is because much of my current slate of readings has focused on citizen science and its invocations toward democratic ends. In his recent book Alien Ocean, for instance, Steven Helmreich points out that scientific efforts often render experts as media in and of themselves toward such ends, something that the “citizen as sensor” frame I discuss similarly does for lay publics. At the same time, Bruce Braun and Sarah J. Whatmore, in dealing with the intersections of geography and science studies within their edited volume Political Matter: Technoscience, Democracy, and Public Life, discuss how, in similar efforts, the “democratic” label isn’t as fully fleshed out in terms of its political potential and what exactly its politics mean within such an invocation.

With that in mind, for reasons that will become clearer in the piece itself, I’ve been returning to the ideas of this particular paper as I prepare for my upcoming projects and presentations. The focus on scaling within it, too, makes it particulary apt for this space and potential topics I may contribute in the future. So, without further ado, here it is:

In situating his new text The Carry Home: Lessons from the American Wilderness, naturalist Gary Ferguson positions the wilderness “as a canvas to project fears and aspirations,” revealing its “power for the imaginative capacity of culture.” [1] Yet he also emphasizes the preservation of nature so that we can enjoy it and learn from it, preserving the exceptionalism of the human in doing so. This is certainly not a tendency exclusive to nature, as we often treat technology in the same light. The Quantified Self movement, which creates personalized algorithms through self-tracking to represent the data individuals exude, is one notable instance of us looking toward technology in part to reaffirm our own exceptionalism, as we are constantly working on ourselves through personalized data.

Similar affirmations, ironically, occur within the nonhuman turn.[2] This reinforcement of human exceptionalism raises questions on the stakes of this turn and how we should best redefine the human while giving sufficient definition to objects. I want to begin thinking through these questions in focusing on digital mapping communities and platforms. I will contend that a focus on the nonhuman scales the politics involved in these contexts and troubles notions of the visual field. Furthermore, I discuss a fashioning of citizen as sensor within the current media landscape. Citizen as sensor is a term that I borrow from a method for citizen science mapping which refers to having lay users document geographically salient data with GPS and other sensor devices, often for purposes of environmental justice.[3] Intriguingly, a sensor is a tool, something that measures and/or reacts to a physical object or a physical phenomenon. Here, I posit that the nonhuman turn, in its particular nuanced sense of scale, affords a critical explanatory framework for analyzing humans as sensors. This, in many ways, complicates human exceptionalism by recognizing, though not reducing, the category of human as it becomes ‘enroled’ as an object for neoliberal ends.

One relevant project out of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, YardMap, enlists users to map their backyards and other outdoor public spaces. From there, the project gives users “landscape details and . . . tools . . . to make better decisions about how to manage landscapes sustainably” and boasts a social media community “focused on sharing strategies, maps, and successes to build more bird habitat.”[4] Such project operations can be seen as neoliberal to a significant extent, and I will pick back up on this later. For now, more broadly, such projects can show what Anna Tsing discusses with fungi in arguing “human nature is an interspecies relationship.”[5] Beyond that, however, these communities also involve scaling technologies and nature on multiple levels: the individual, the device, the community, the software, the technological infrastructure, the specific local context, and the broader environment. Here, Tsing’s concepts of foraging and familiar places may prove helpful. Tsing contends that foraging works through making places familiar through regular visits. These familiar places serve as the beginning of appreciation for multi-species interaction, cultivating a sense that more that one species learns and works the land. Citizen science mapping projects, then, may forge familiar spaces toward such recognitions.

Privileged demographics, though, often comprise mapping communities. Psychogeography is often constituted and critiqued for its largely white, male, and affluent demographic.[6] Even OpenStreetMap, considered the most egalitarian dominant digital mapping interface, has a predominantly white and male community.[7] The typical whiteness of mapping groups, then, marks a privileged identity category assuming the privileged status of scientist in assessing the field of multispecies in bolstering the privileged category of the human. Conceptualizations of citizen as sensor may have important underlying racial ascriptions influencing citizen science mapping groups representing the nonhuman.

While Wendy Hui Kyong Chun conceptualizes mobilities in relation to the nonhuman as well, her discussion pertains to navigation and guidance through the media landscape of software. She argues that situating “[s]oftware as thing re-conceptualizes society, bodies, and memories in ways that both compromise and extend the subject.” She identifies that “interfaces– . . . as a means of navigation – have been key to creating ‘informed’ individuals who can overcome the chaos of global capitalism,” citing that governmentality promotes self-navigation. For Chun, this ties into the neoliberal fantasy of “the seemingly sovereign individual, the subject driven to know, driven to map, to zoom in and out, to manipulate, and to act. The dream is: the more that an individual knows, the better decisions he or she can make.”[8] Chun, in turn, elucidates how the guiding function of software matches broader neoliberal prerogatives. It instills a sense of control on the user’s part while simultaneously guiding and constraining possible user actions to a significant degree.[9] Here, too, the Quantified Self movement is notable; it brings responsibility wholly upon the individual, rather than environmental factors, for failures to meet certain standards. But this is also emblematic of broader trends towards increasingly personalized media economies as well. Chun underscores that “[b]y interacting with these interfaces, we are also mapped: data-driven machine learning algorithms process our collective data traces in order to discover underlying patterns.”[10]

Chun also shows how neoliberal the frame of citizen as sensor can be. The faith espoused in objectivity within such platforms implies the accessibility of more and better information across a range of involved actors would prompt better decision-making. Scaling, then, becomes critical here given that the view a scale affords (be it, by way of analogy, the god’s eye view of positivism or the situated knowledge of an STS or ethnographic perspective) becomes a knowledge claim in and of itself, one that, in these cases, emerges in the designers’ framing of each platform. What is so interesting about considering Chun’s work within the nonhuman turn is that it borrows so much from Foucauldian thought, particularly governmentality, within a turn often posited as a reaction to Foucault’s writing, perhaps one which is “post-Foucault.” Order emerges as an aspirational category out of the mess that constitutes the systems we study. Citizen as sensor, in scaling the underlying politics involved, masks a great deal of those politics, and has serious implications for the framing and “ordering” of what is being mapped.

References

[1] “Gardens of England; Quiet Places in the City; The Wilderness Act,” Travel With Rick Steves, retrieved from https://www.ricksteves.com/watch-read-listen/audio/radio/programs/program-402.

[2] See Timothy Morton, “Here Comes Everything: The Promise of Object Oriented Ontology,” Levi Bryant, “Wilderness Ontology,” in Preternatural, ed. by Celina Jeffery (Punctum Books, 2011), 19– 26.

[3] “What is Citizen Science Mapping,” Geo.Geo: Mapping Solutions for the Majority World,” retrieved from http://www.geogeoglobal.com/csm-in-action/.

[4] “About Us,” YardMap, retrieved from http://content.yardmap.org/about-us/.

[5] Anna Tsing, “Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species,” retrieved from http://tsingmushrooms.blogspot.com/.

[6] Andrea Zeffiro, “A Location of One’s Own: A Genealogy of Locative Media,” Convergence 18.3 (2012), 249.

[7] Chris Perkins, “Plotting Practices and Politics: (Im)mutable Narratives in OpenStreetMap,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 2014.

[8] Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Programmed Visions: Software and Memory, MIT Press, 2011, 8.

[9] Ibid, 8.

[10] Ibid, 9.

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