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Ecology of the Theories of Networks Course

Welcome to the Ecosystem of Theories of Networks!

I know it may sound a little odd to call a course an ecosystem, let alone applying ecology theory to it. But, it is an ecosystem, and for me, it an ecosystem that is part-physical classroom, part-virtual existence, and part-home environment. Most of the residents of my ecosystem show themselves in messages on Facebook, as talking-moving squares on a screen on the classroom television, and as data spilling out onto Google docs. Once a week, three others share the same physical space I do, but always for a (roughly) two hour period of time. But, you ask, can this even remotely be classified as an ecosystem? Well, I turn my attention to Bateson’s Ecology of the Mind, especially with the concept of the cybernetic epistemology and the “larger Mind.” With the way technology has become such a part of our lives, our environments are both physical and virtual, and should not be separated. Welcome to the future.

 

Larger Mind? Mind as Computer? Image hosted on the website Advanced Apes.

Larger Mind? Mind as Computer? Image hosted on the website Advanced Apes.

As Gibson points out, in his chapter “The Theory of Affordances,” humans have modified our environments “to change what it affords [us]. [We have] made more available what benefits [us] and less pressing what injures [us]” (130). Gibson tells us that, “The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill” (127). So what affordances are now offered to me in this hybrid ecosystem of my course? What can be afforded within a virtual environment? Many things, actually.

Take, for our first example, this blog. What does this digital space provide for me? I am the organism and this is my environment. While it does not allow me to modify everything in my space (especially as I am lacking in things like HTML know-how), but it does allow me to draw in images, videos, and text so as to express my ideas, creating a space for me. The blog then becomes my place, with the class shared folder and Facebook back channel as my habitat, from which I can interact with the other residents of my ecosystem and neighboring ecosystems. The class website is another space within the ecosystem that offers me affordances (making me accountable for the work I do) as it becomes the center of which all of my work and that of my peers revolve around. The schedule affords me deadlines and the ability to time-keep based on assignments, provides me links to external readings and reminds me of what I need to read, allows me to add quotes to the discourse of the class, and further my understanding of the coursework with the sporadic inclusion of videos throughout the schedule.

But which learning space allows for me to lay out my ideas, made connections, without feeling like I have to explain those connections as I make them? Ah, the mindmap is the part of the ecosystem (as all of our mindmaps are accessible through our blogs, which are then accessible through the course website), but the affordances of Popplet is very limited compared to that of the blog and the website. Through the software, I am afforded the creation of nodes that can be filled with text and visual objects, as well as creating multiple connections between those nodes. However, the affordances of this particular environment are limited by the capabilities of the code that underlies its structures. Once the mindmap becomes too large, it is impossible to see the entirety of the mindmap without the words  becoming blurry, but the software allows for differentiating among thoughts by having nodes color-coded (though the color choices are limited). The larger affordance of Popplet is that I can share my work, deciding whether I want to make it private, public but only to those with the link, or public to the whole of the Popplet ecosystem. I can stay in my semi-hiding place or I can be out in the midst of my habitat.

Now, the last technology/application I am going to touch on in my ecosystem, with the distributed consciousness of the other residents of my Theories of Networks ecosystem kept in mind, is that of the Google docs, where we can work alone (isolation for personal projects) or come together to work simultaneously in a shared virtual space. We may not physically share the same space, but out minds, through code, can occupy and mingle together. The affordances of this space come through in the ability to modify the visual appearance of the text, and to link among parts of the document, out to other documents, websites, images, and videos. It affords multiple organisms in the environment to work together without on a single document, presentation, drawing, and still be able to talk through chat. Google docs then affords me to save the work I have done, or export it out, as well as import in documents created outside of Google doc, allowing it all to exist within the Google Drive ecosystem in which part of the Theories of Networks ecosystem thrives, but only part. This collective consciousness I share with my peers always exists within several ecosystems that are already in play, and we can carve our own space out of the worlds founded by code, zeroes and ones represented through user interfaces.

Where to go from here: Terminator, BBC style?

What happens when technology goes too far? Nah, that'll never happen. Image hosted on Photobombs section of Likes.

What happens when technology goes too far? Nah, that’ll never happen. Image hosted on Photobombs section of Likes.

To the Victor Goes the Spoils:


Reading Notes: Ecology & Affordance

Bateson

Bateson, G. (1987/1972). Steps to an ecology of mind: Collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, Inc.

To separate the individual from the society, or the individual mind or thought from the global mind or thought, is to deny the ecological unity of creatura, of the creative self. Individuals are part of ecologies; to reduce oneself to a single ego is to deny the relationship of the individual in the larger social.

I found most interesting that ecology might be considered a way in which ideas — differences that make a difference — are transformed and remain alive beyond the individual mind. The mind is not simply an internal space. It’s an ecology that connects beyond the self, beyond the individual, to encompass history and society. Since “in the world of mind, nothing — that which is not — can be a cause” (p. ???), ecology theory suggests that binaries and dualities, like cause and effect, offer only an incomplete picture of reality. Reality consists of causes and effects, but it also consists of invisible connections made in the world of mind, connections that cannot be empirically proven as “existing” in the physical sense.

Bateson puts this another way in his “Comment on Part V”: “In sum, what has been said amounts to this: that in addition to (and always in conformity with) the familiar physical determinism which characterizes our universe, there is a mental determinism” (p. 472). The key is immanence versus transcendence. Transcendence leads to divine or transcendent agency, while immanence yields communal and networked agency within systems. And it’s this sense of networked agency that relates most directly to our understanding of network theory.

Gibson

Gibson, J. J. (1986). The ecological approach to visual perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

There’s clearly confusion over the meaning of “affordance,” as demonstrated in this visualization headlining a blog post titled The affordances of objects and pictures of those objects on the blog Notes from Two Scientific Psychologists.

“Affordance” is defined as that which is provided or furnished, either for good or for ill. Affordances must be determined relative to the subject, not “objectively.” As a result, affordance may be a way to subvert the objective/subjective divide. Since determining affordances requires referencing the observer, a theory of affordances enables us to examine the relationships among objects and subjects in an ecology that denies dualism in favor of ecology. In short, affordances are about networks; the relationship among objects and subjects in an ecology is that of networked connections that connect nodes.

Affordance theory does not accept as valid either mind-matter or mind-body dichotomies. Instead, it recognizes the ecological connections that can’t be ignored or explained away. Like ANT, affordance theory seeks to examine connections among subjects and objects in all their complexity. In addition, a theory of affordances does not require the perceiver to “assume fixed classes of objects.” Like Foucault and ANT, affordance theory resists placing subjects and objects into fixed classifications. “The perceiving of an affordance is not a process of perceiving a value-free physical object to which meaning is somehow added in a way that no one has been able to agree upon; it is a process of perceiving a value-rich ecological object.” The affordance is perceived as ecological in nature, lacking singular or classified focus.

Norman

Norman, D. (n.d.). Affordances and design. Don Norman Designs. Retrieved from http://www.jnd.org/dn.mss/affordances_and_desi.html.

Perceived affordances differ from real affordances in that perceived affordances focus on the user’s perception that a meaningful action is possible. Norman writes, “I introduced the term affordance to design in my book, ‘The Psychology of Everyday Things’…. The concept has caught on, but not always with true understanding. Part of the blame lies with me: I should have used the term ‘perceived affordance,’ for in design, we care much more about what the user perceives than what is actually true. What the designer cares about is whether the user perceives that some action is possible (or in the case of perceived non-affordances, not possible).” Perceived affordance focuses on what the user believes possible through the affordance. The actual affordance may not be relevant; the perception of affordance is much more important.

Norman differentiates between affordances and conventions. Cultural conventions are the way things are done in cultural contexts. The example offered is of scrollbars on a screen. They always work in a specific way that is culturally constructed and conventional. To go against this cultural convention is counterproductive.

Thoughts on Application

Visualization of cloud of icons

The world of mind: An ecology of web design. Visualizing the ecology of affordances and cultural conventions in web design. From KaJ Labs, a web design company.

Norman’s recommendations about designing for screen interfaces were right on target, although they also discouraged me a little in realizing how much cultural conventions affect pedagogical decisions. We often try to make changes to rapidly or two radically; in doing so, we push too hard against cultural conventions that make effective work possible. Norman’s concern about metaphor is more valid than I wish to admit; I’ve had a couple of experiences this semester trying to use metaphor to explain some pedagogical design decisions that backfired because students took the metaphor too literally and misunderstood assignments.

When it comes to web design, perceived affordances and cultural conventions work together with subjects to enable activity. Cultural conventions work as frameworks into which perceived affordances may be constructed that allow subjects to accomplish meaningful activity. We create web pages within conventional frameworks of programming languages, software, and hardware; we create those web pages with perceived affordances that enable users to accomplish tasks of browsing and finding information being sought. Our designs enter the ecology of all those perceived affordances constructed within cultural conventions — websites, blogs, multimodal projects, streaming audio and video platforms, and more.

[Feature Image: Ecology of the Mohave Desert. CC licensed image by Flickr user PNNL - Pacific Northwest National Laboratory]