One of many posts on my Readiness Assessment. As a reminder of the ground rules, this is a solo assessment, so while I’m allowed to think out loud on my blog, I can’t ask for or get (intellectual) help. Cookies and emotional support are, however, welcome.
"What's an affordance?" was last night's question. I read an essay, 2 books, and a paper over dinner, and I think I've got some answers. Dinner was a $10 "sushi salad" and a ton of other food for my ravenous appetite that brought it up to $20 with a nice tip; one of the things I'm indulging in during my RAT is allowing myself to eat out on occasion, which I almost never do otherwise. I usually go home and cook a fresh meal, but I'm willing to pay a little bit in these two weeks to have a working lunch/dinner where I only have to intellect-work and not also kitchen-work. It gives me good brain space, good changes in context, a bit of incentive, and a way to make me see this rite-of-passage in a happy, yummy light.
My first step was at the motherlode, James J. Gibson's original essay "The Theory of Affordances," where the term was first defined in 1977.
Q 67: Subject to revision, I suggest that the affordance of anything is a specific combination of the properties of its substance and its surfaces taken with reference to an animal.
N^: Note the cautiousness of this definition, since Gibson is conscious he's defining a new word. The "subject to revision" gives you room to play. And in fact, Norman does revise it in his book, The Philosophy of Everyday Things, later on. I'm going to use that line as license to play with the idea, stretch it like taffy, in my own writing. Hooyah. It's nice, gathering my material, feeling how I can shape it.
P 67-69: An affordance is a combination of multiple properties that is meaningful, and is thus more easily perceived than the properties in isolation.
N ^: Perception is important. Experts see affordances (like in the famous "chunking" study of chess experts and novices) whereas novices do not... but the affordance is still there regardless of whether it's perceived and used, it seems.
P 68: Affordances can be positive or negative (something might afford falling or cutting and injuring yourself).
P 68: Affordances are dependent on the physical properties of the individual or subgroup in question -- something might be sit-on-able for a kid, but not a grown-up that is too large.
N^: Ah, so there's a difference between "ability to utilize feature" -- which makes an affordance -- and "perception of that ability," which might determine whether the affordance gets used. Okay, okay, figuring this out. I gotta be careful, writing about RTR, to not promote it as a cure-all; it's got limitations and there are people that are left out of it, who find it hard to use, and so forth. It's not a universal circle. It's just a larger one.
Q 68: What other persons afford for man, comprise the whole realm of social significance.
N ^: We can describe social inequities as differences in person-to-person affordance. This feels like an awkward and undeveloped idea in my mind as I write this note, but that may change and mature over time. Not sure if it'll do so within my Readiness timeframe, but we'll see. And... and when did I start sounding like such a critical theorist? Good grief.
Q 69: ...a niche is a set of affordances... a way of life is a set of affordances that are utilized.
N ^: This is the impact of RTR, potentially -- I'm describing a different sort of niche, trying to get people to live their engineering education lives in a different way (that Big Beacon describes pretty well). I'd like to articulate this a bit better; I need more threads to tie into this.
Q 70: Why has man changed the shapes and substances of his environment? So as to change what it affords him. He has made more available what benefits him and less pressing what injures him. In making life easier for himself, of course, he has made life harder for most of the other animals.
Sounds like the hacker mentality to me. I'm not sure if I want to quote and cite Raymond here (Cathedral & Bazaar, mostly -- everyone cites that though), but... I mean, this is why hackers tinker with their world, and he did write about that.
Q 70: This is not a new envionment, an artificial environment, distinct from the natural environment, but the same old environment modified by man. It is a mistake to separate the natural from the artificial as if there were two environments. Artifacts have to be manufactured from natural substances. It is also a mistake to separate the cultural environment from the natural environment, as if there were a world of mental products distinct from the world of material products. There is only one world, however diverse, and all animals live in it, although we human animals have altered it to suit ourselves.
I'm not sure what I want to do with this yet, only that I like it.
Thinking out loud: are there readings on cognitive affordances? Can actions afford things, or only the physical substances/changes/artifacts they create? I... can't tell if this question is an important one to go down, or a rabbit-hole that'll only distract me from my actual paper.
P 72: [substances] may afford things that an aminal may or may not be equipped for.
N ^: but is it then an affordance? is it only an affordance to some and not others? (Note that affordances can be seen even if they're not used -- a post office affords mailing even if you don't have a letter.) I guess something has an affordance if it affords it to somebody, even if that somebody is not you. Starting to get this concept shaped up in my mind. I should write my summary definition at the end.
I'm also reminded of the FOSS community line, "we're open to all" -- I mean, sort of. It's just that... it's not... quite equally open to all. Or rather, it's open to all with this criteria that... anyway, it's not the time and place for me to unpack this. Outside the scope of this paper.
But how do we discuss psychological barriers with the theory of affordance? If you're physically able to do something with an object, but socially unable to do that thing with that object, is it actually an affordance? Maybe we can discuss this by talking about the cost of utilizing an affordance; it's still there, it's just more expensive.
P 73: Things can afford concealment.
P 74: Affordances of perception and locomotion are different; a cloth curtain affords locomotion but not perception, glass affords perception but not locomotion.
N ^: The last two notes make me think about transparency vs participation, which are two different things. I need to articulate their role(s) in RTR more clearly. You can have the project that is lurkable in realtime, commentable on the side, but not contributable-to... that, to me, is more RTR-ish than something you can contribute to but not see (throwing survey feedback, etc. into a black box).
Let me think out loud on this a bit. Transparency is vital to RTR (the T is for transparency), but participation... isn't? That seems wrong. Transparency is vital, and participation in mainline isn't vital, but being able to create your own opportunities for participation -- on a side channel, say -- or making a copy and following along yourself on the side -- that is pretty important. So it's transparency and replicability that lets you make your own participation. And I... have just paraphrased the Four Freedoms, so I guess I'll be citing Stallman in my paper!
N: The idea of affordances decouples what something is made for from what it's used for -- it's related to the idea of repurposing.
P 76: When social beings interact, they are taking advantage of the affordances they have for each other -- and these affordances are paired. What a child affords a mother is reciprocal to what a mother affords a child, and so forth.
P 79: People perceive affordances relative to themselves -- can I <verb> this?
One important part of FOSS culture that I want to explicitly transfer to RTR is the slightly different notion of social roles; it's not quite a meritocracy (there's still reputation, still titles) but it seems closer than in academia. Why? Because... hrm. Well, because access is given granularly, and you can see how someone got it and why. That's an incomplete answer, but enough to poke and see... can I translate that to RTR using the theory of affordances (for my first question, the lit review)? I... hrm. Doesn't fit right. Doesn't feel right. I don't have it yet. I'll leave the thought be for now, maybe circle back later, but it's ok if I don't come back.
P 80: Some affordances are more easily perceived than others. For instance, a miswired electrical panel affords electric shock, but it's hard to tell before you actually get shocked.
Again, a note on the importance of making things clear, setting boundaries and ground rules -- which is the safety-barrier in the comic strip panel my committee specifically wanted me to write about. I'll have to put in a section just about boundaries, rules, safety, and this should go there.
P 80-81: Affordances may be mistaken -- there are false negatives ("I'll fall!") that mask true affordances ("there's a glass floor that will hold your weight") and we may assume affordances that aren't there (a bird flying into a window that it thought was a gap which afforded passage). When we are mistaken about an affordance, it is because of the properties of the object we are mistaken about.
N ^: Must be careful about how people perceive RTR; we need to be clear on what can and can't happen. Remember how folks are scared about open-licensing things sometimes, all the things they worry about? Or how they think "open" means "no social rules" -- but it doesn't?
Okay. So after all that, Mel -- what's an affordance, so far, after Gibson?
An affordance is a possibility that's offered to a being by a noun -- an object, a substance, a being -- by virtue of the combination of properties that the noun and the being have. Affordances can be hidden, and hiding is an affordance -- as are (separately) visibility and participation. Affordances are there when the possibility is there, regardless of whether or not the possibility is utilized -- and affordances, when they are between two beings, are reciprocal. Affordances can be possibilities for negative things (getting hurt) to happen, and we can be mistaken about affordances with both false positives and negatives.
Enough with this, move on for now. The other readings on affordance, let's think about those.