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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]