The A word

I was looking at the draft theses of two of my PhD students last week. One is in the area of theoretical artificial intelligence, and particularly non-conceptual content. The other is in the area of learner experience and decision making. Two very different fields, but both had made use of the concept of affordances. This  demonstrates one of two things:

i) Affordances are such a powerful concept that they have application in multiple domains.

ii) It has become so meaningless that you can apply them to any domain

I have used the term myself quite a bit, and it crops up in my new book. Personally I find it a useful way of thinking about how technologies influence behaviour. But it is a loaded term and you can blithely stick it on a PowerPoint slide and then find yourself spending your entire talk defining the term and justifying your use of it. I accept that its usage has become a bit slippery, and decidedly post-Gibsonian, but I think it does get at something which we instinctively feel about objects. Something about the way they suggest, or promote, a certain use. It becomes particularly tricky (but also particularly useful) when you talk about affordances of higher level cognitive functions. For instance you can say that instant messaging affords a certain type of communication. Now it can be argued that this is nothing to do with affordances and more to do with social norms. In some ways I don’t think the distinction is important. One could relabel it ‘technological compliance’ if you wanted (although affordance is a nicer term). Put simply it goes something like – if you put someone in a Ferrari, they drive faster. This could be an affordance of the car, or it could be that they have a social model of behaviour for people driving Ferrari’s. From a psychological perspective the underlying mechanism may be significant, but from an educational technology one, I suspect it is not.

Mind you, I do have some sympathy with those who bemoan its over-use. Hutto for example argues that "Affordance at its best is explanatorily superfluous and metaphysically extravagant".

As an aside, look at that quote – don’t you just love arguments between philosophers? Personally I think the next reality TV show should be ‘Get me out of here, I’m an intellectual’. Lots of bearded white men in a jungle strutting around saying ‘My dear man, you’re just being metaphysically extravagant".

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