On Affordances in Digital Environments

I've become increasingly enamored with affordances theory, but at the same time increasingly frustrated by how carelessly it tends to be used in educational technology research. Affordance is an extremely powerful concept, but all too often it's reduced to a simplistic idea of just how something can be used - a trivialisation that demeans its pedigree. But I'm getting ahead of myself, I should at least give a brief intro to what affordance theory actually is.

What is Affordance Theory?

The term affordance was coined by James Gibson, a Psychologist who unfortunately passed away in 1979, not long after he published his seminal work, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. The book discusses a new way of understanding how people perceive the world around them, and presents a radical new approach that dispenses with the need for internal processing of perceptual information, instead suggesting that information is directly 'picked-up' from the world around us. A hugely influential publication, which is still provoking much heated debate, my take on Gibson is that he effectively suggested that our perceptions and our understandings of what we perceive are all deeply tied into our very neurological structures - both physical and chemical - as they develop.  That we are in constant connection with the world around us through all our senses, and that these create a connected experience of the reality we experience, suggesting that our conscious experience is a constantly changing flux of internally driven intention combined with externally driven suggestion. His theory tries to break with the traditional philosophical separation of dualism and materialism.

Affordance theory was a chapter in its own right in the book, and is a key tenet of Gibson's theory. Often summarised as what an object or place in the world might provide or furnish for an individual, it is usually explained through examples - water affords hydration for example (a positive affordance for a thirsty individual), but also affords drowning (a negative affordance for an air breathing creature). Underlying these simple examples is the key understanding that these affordances are specific to an individual, and independent of intention. The water always affords hydration to a creature who drinks it, but a creature won't necessarily 'pick-up' that affordance unless it is thirsty. Similarly water will always afford drowning, but again this will not be picked-up by the individual unless this danger becomes apparent. A grown adult will quite happily play in a paddling pool with no conception of the possibility that they will drown, for example, however if they were miles out to sea all alone, then that possibility would be all too apparent.

Gibson's theory of affordance therefore posits that we live in a world full of affordances, full of opportunities for things to act on as well as things that will act on us, and that every individual has an individual and personal set of affordances. There will be much commonality between individuals, but nonetheless every single individual will have a personal set of affordances in the world - and crucially these change as the individual changes over time, and learns new things. Affordances come and go as we develop, cups we drank out of as children lose their affordance to us as adults, clothes we once wore become too small, new places we discover offer new delights or dangers, and so on.

There remains, however, the question of why we attend to certain affordances at certain times, and this is where the concept of intention comes in. We live in a world of thousands of affordances , and the affordances that surround us constantly change as new move through our environment, i.e. as we come across new objects, places, people, etc. and leave others behind so we come across new affordances and move away from others. Although all these affordances are present, there are too many for us to attend to constantly all the time, instead we pick-up specific affordances based on our intention. If I want to make a cup of tea, for example, various affordances of my (stove top) kettle stand out, the handle for picking it up, the spout for removing, the empty hole left for filling with water, etc. If on the other hand I might be faced with an intruder in my kitchen, the handle might still provide a way of picking it up, but instead the affordance for removing the spout, the affordance that I would pick-up would be the capacity to swing it, and the fact that it is heavy metal object capable of causing damage. The same object, with a wide range of different affordances, each of which is 'picked-up' according to intention.

Finally there is the question of how we learn affordances. Whilst not totally developed in Gibson's work, there is to my mind an explanation implicit within his text of how affordance comes to be learned, and that is through the notion of invariants. Invariants are a key building block for affordances, and basically describe aspects of the world which do not change as we experience them. From a visual perception perspective these include subtle effects such as texture gradient, the way that a beach of stones will appear close up a large lumps, but that these lumps will get smaller and smaller as our view moves off into the distance. This is invariant, it does not change, and occurs in many millions of similar cases. Similarly when perceiving letters or words, the shape of an 'S' for example is invariant, there may be different ways of drawing it, but the core structure of the 'S'. the way the top and bottom curl around, remains invariant in all cases. Once these curves move beyond a certain level the concept of 'S' disappears - effectively the affordance of 'S' disappears. Crucially this concept of invariance can also be extended to things we learning outside of visual perception, sounds of words for example are also invariant. What we learn, therefore, is the invariants in the world around us. What does not change as we experience it seems to become embedded in our neural structures themselves, almost as if they are 'hard wired' to pick-up this unchanging nature by their very nature.

Affordances in the Digital Environment

Affordances began as part of a wider theory of visual perception and were an attempt to understand how we derive meaning from the world around us. However they were always coined in terms of the real world, or the physical reality that we experience around us. How then are then used in the digital context, in a world of bits, binary data, screens and simulated worlds? I believe that they key to that answer lies in one of the words from that sentence - simulation. The digital world is a simulated world, it does not have a pre-existing form like the real world, there is no clay to be formed into objects, no water that can be drunk, no air to breathe. Everything in the digital world in created, simulated if you will, and almost without exception uses metaphors from the real world in order to provide visitors to the digital world with a sense of meaning -  with a sense of place. That sense of place, being based on metaphors from the real world, invariably suggests similar affordances to the real world. Buttons that can be pushed, bars that can be pulled, tabs that can be selected.

This focus on real world is invaluable in terms of providing an interface that is easy to use and a space that is easy to navigate within. But at the same time I can't help wondering whether there's more to this space, whether these metaphors that are so useful are also constraining us into the same ways of thinking that we're familiar with. Meaning and thinking are all blended together in the theory of affordances, if the digital world might offer us new affordances, it's just possible they might also offer us new ways of thinking as well.

Popular Posts