Jenny L. Davis on her book, How Artifacts Afford: The Power and Politics of Everyday Things

How Artifacts Afford

Interview by Kevin Laddapong

https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/how-artifacts-afford

Kevin Laddapong: Reading How Artifacts Afford is very refreshing. You have proposed a way forward for analysts and practitioners to think critically about technologies through the notion of affordance. However, as you mentioned in the book, the concept has traveled widely from discipline to discipline. It sometimes is undertheorized, and sometimes overtheorized. Could you please discuss what are the watershed moments shaping how scholars have approached the concept of affordances that has led to the current analytical landscape?

I’ll start with a working definition of affordance, for those who are unfamiliar. Affordances are how the features of a technology—its technical specifications—affect the functions of a technology. This includes direct utilities (what people can do with the technology) and social outcomes (what the technology does with us).

It’s unusual for a concept tot operate so fully between and across disciplines, as ‘affordance’ has. However, as I say in the book, cross-disciplinary travels can lead to conceptual blurriness and overworking.  Chapter 2 of the book provides a full intellectual history of the concept, which I’ll distil here into three general epochs

JJ Gibson introduced the concept of affordance in 1979 with his book The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Gibson was an ecological psychologist who defined affordance as a relationship between organisms and environments. This was empirically derived from Gibson’s efforts to understand how WWII pilots interacted with their airplanes, and theoretically based in Gibson’s opposition to gestalt psychology (the du jour of the time). For Gibson, affordance represented an intrinsic relationship between people and objects, and his use of the term served a theoretical agenda to convey human-environment interaction as direct rather than representational

In the 1980s/1990s, Don Norman made affordance practical and tangible. Norman brought the concept to design studies with his canonical book The Design of Everyday Things. Norman positioned the designer as a psychologist, tasked with communicating to users, through design, how those objects ought to be used.

From the early 2000’s to present, with the rise of digital technologies and automation, affordance has conceptually exploded. Scholars in communication studies and other related fields have scrambled to understand a changing technological landscape and how technological developments integrate into, and affect, social life. Affordance is an effective tool in this regard due to its characteristic balance between technological determinism and radical constructivism.

In the book, I build on this history to transform an overloaded concept into an operational model. The model I present is called ‘the mechanisms and conditions framework’.      

Kevin Laddapong: The book requires us to reframe the question about technologies from what to how, for whom, and under what circumstances, which bring us to the Mechanism and Condition Framework.  For the blog readers, could you describe this framework, and discuss how it would lead to a different approach to the technologies around us?

Jenny Davis: The mechanisms and conditions framework shifts ‘affordance’ from a single concept to an operational model. The mechanisms of affordance address how technologies afford, and the conditions address for whom and under what circumstances?

The mechanisms map onto a series of categorical hooks: request, demand, encourage, discourage, refuse, and allow. These mechanisms are conditioned by three interrelated dimensions of perception—what someone knows about the functions of a technology, dexterity—one’s skill and capacity to operate a technology, and cultural and institutional legitimacy—how socially supported someone is in technological engagement.

The framework does two things. First, it gets outside binary renditions of human-technology relations. Technologies don’t just afford some action or not, but push and pull with varying degrees of force. This variable pushing and pulling is captured by the mechanisms of affordance (request, demand, encourage, discourage, refuse, and allow). Second, the model does away with implicit assumptions about universal subjects. Technologies function in myriad ways across circumstances and between individuals. The conditions of affordance specify how contextual factors come into play (e.g., for whom does the technology request and for whom does it demand?) 

Kevin Laddapong: Another major contribution of this book is its approach to politicizing technology. How can readers use the Mechanism and Condition Framework as a strategic and critical tool for thinking about technologies in everyday lives?

Jenny Davis: The book begins with the assumption that technologies embody human values and affect social relations. This assumption overlays the mechanisms and conditions framework with a critical lens that centralizes politics and power in socio-technical systems. Centralizing politics and power creates an entry point for interrogating whose interests existing technologies represent, how those technologies (re)produce structural social patterns, and how to build new technological implements that trouble the status quo.

The mechanisms and conditions framework provides a simple vocabulary for mapping not only direct technical functions, but also flow-on social effects of technologies as they interact with diverse subjects across a range of circumstances. With the mechanisms and conditions framework, analysts and activists can hold technology makers to account for what is, while reimagining what could be.

Kevin Laddapong: In order to make a direct impact, how could public and business sectors, such as tech companies, policymakers, and the media industry appropriate the framework in practice? Would you see any benefit to having these other actors engage with the framework as well?

Jenny Davis: I tried to make the book highly accessible for the very reason that I think the framework can be beneficial to those outside of academia, like the groups you mention in this question. The stakes of technological design are too high to keep ideas about design processes and outcomes cordoned off within academic circles.  Technologies have social effects. This is something we should all care about, and it is something that tech companies, policymakers, and the media industry can directly impact.

Corporate and government actors can use the framework to systematically plan how their creations will function both technically and socially, within a diverse, dynamic, and multifaceted world. Although it’s easy to criticize tech companies and governing bodies for their continued missteps, it’s also important to acknowledge how challenging it is to build something new and to imagine all the ways that new thing will affect the world and the people in it. The mechanisms and conditions framework helps put complex considerations on the ground such that social goals can be the start point, from which developers build. For example, those who develop and regulate technological systems can specify how their system will encourage autonomy and equity, and identify sub-populations for whom those social goods are refused.

The framework can also be a tool of empowerment for those who seek to hold corporate and governing bodies to account. If technologies do bad things, then everyday people can use the framework’s vocabulary to show, unambiguously, what those bad things are and how they distribute along intersecting lines of power, identity, and inequality.

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