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The troublesome concept of “technological affordances”

The word “affordance” is frequently used in writings about new technology. For example, danah boyd has stated that the “affordances” of “networked publics” include things like the persistence of information within them, and the ease by which information can be reproduced and transmitted far beyond its initial context of production.

The simple (but not quite accurate) understanding of the term is that it describes the possible uses that humans can make use of specific technologies. As such, it can sometimes be construed as an example of that great Bugbear of the social studies of technology: technological determinism. Technological determinism is the naive belief that technology is some sort of abstract force which influences society to some degree, but is not itself the product of social forces of any form. Technological determinism comes in several forms – the most common distinction is between “hard” and “soft” determinism, with “softer” versions viewing technology as just one factor shaping society rather than the dominant or only one – but the idea common to all is that technology itself need not be explained as, say, the outcome of competing social pressures, or as influenced by different ideas about what kinds of technologies ought to be developed in what kind of way.

The history of social study of technology since pretty much the late 1970s onwards has been one of uncovering the social forces at work in the creation and development of various technological artefacts and technological systems. The different intentions of different creators and users are considered as much a part of the story of technological creation and development as is the solving of specific problems encountered in the process of creation and development. The domination of the private, petroleum-powered automobile as a system of transport depends as much on consumer decisions about what kind of transport is preferable, and why, along with legislative backing for construction of the necessary transport infrastructure (roads instead of rails), as it does on any alleged “technological superiority” of the petrol-powered care to the alternatives that were being developed at the same time.

At its most radical, this critique of technological determinism goes to the opposite extreme. A school of thought known as “social constructivism” posits that we should ignore any claims that a technological artefact has any “inherent” properties, and that all such properties are actually a matter of contingent interpretation. Different groups can have different interpretations about what a technology actually “is”, and it’s the task of the sociologist of technology to point out where certain groups’ interpretations have been shut down by the claim that a property of technology is “inherent”: it’s actually just the dominant interpretation imposed by the dominant group.

The notion of a “technological affordance” was introduced by a man named Ian Hutchby as a reaction against social constructivism. Sure, he said, there’s some interpretive flexibility about how technologies are developed and get used, but come on: can you really “interpret” a soft drink vending machine as a spaceship and then fly to Mars with it? The materiality of technology matters, and it is this materiality that not only constrains what it is possible to do with technologies so that you can’t fly to Mars in a vending machine, but also actually provides the “stuff” by which technologies can be put to use in the first place.

Hutchby chose the term “affordance” to describe the materially-based constraints on what could be done with specific technological artefacts because it had previously been used in perception studies with a specific meaning. In perception studies, the “affordance” of an object was the use to which it made itself available to others. It was more appropriate to speak about an object’s affordance than, say, its properties, because “affordances” were relational. By this, it was meant that the affordances only manifested and became notable when the entity to which they could be made available actually tried to make them available. Therefore, for Hutchby, the “affordances” of a technological artefact were those properties of it that could be used by individuals for their specific purposes: purposes which were defined by the user of the technology rather than the technology itself. This was Hutchby’s attempt to posit technological artefacts as having effects, but without claiming that those effects exist independently of human social action. 

Hutchby quite deliberately dodged the question of how technological affordances came to exist in any specific technological artefact. His intention was to shift the focus of technology studies to an area that he believed had been seriously neglected by the all the attention devoted in social studies of technology to the creation and development of technologies. After the technologies have been developed and deployed, what then? How do technological artefacts and technological systems relate to society at the point that they are no longer being developed? When they have become mundane and “boring”, in other words?

In an era when the Internet has gone mainstream,  when certain forms of communication media such as e-mail appear to have largely stabilised in technological form, aren’t we losing something by continuing to study technology in terms of creation and development rather than in terms of the use to which stable technological forms are actually put?

Maybe. But I also think that there’s an assumption here that’s unwarranted. An analysis in terms of the affordances provided by technologies can work if the form of that technology remains stable over a long period of time. But at the time I write this, I can sum up precisely why this assumption is not only wrong, but dangerous, in two words: Google Reader.

The  shock announcement to shut down Google Reader provides a very clear lesson about the dangers of assuming the stability and durability of technological artefacts not just in technology studies, but in everyday life. The “affordances” of Google Reader will cease to exist this coming July. Analysing the recent history of Google Reader also gives a very clear indication of how the affordances of this “stable” technology radically changed over the past two years. These changes can’t readily be explained in terms of materiality, but are more appropriately described in terms of corporate politics, market competition and dominating intellectual paradigms. Quite simply, Google Reader lost out to Google Inc’s decision to try to compete with Facebook. In the process they eliminated many of the “social” features of Google Reader that had been built up and replaced it with their clone of Facebook’s “like” button, the “+1” button tied to their new Google Plus networking site. This then destroyed the communities that Google Reader had created. The announcement to retire Google Reader amounts, in my mind, to the completion of Google Inc’s shift away from a paradigm of technological development  motivated by the idea that sharing information constituted communities, to one in motivated by the idea that “networked communities” exist – both online and offline – in which information is incidentally shared. For Google’s future technological intentions, the “political public” model of community has given way to the “social networking” model of community: community as founded on communication has become community in which the communication within it is a monetisable commodity.

Google didn’t have to do this. When the announcement was made, people seemed to be in shock that they did. The “durability” of many of the technological artefacts that must be assumed in an analysis focusing on “technological affordances” was exposed as dubious and dependent on continuing corporate patronage. The notion of “technological affordances” could be quite a troublesome concept if it inadvertently obscures the importance of that corporate patronage , and the motivations behind that patronage, for the ongoing existence of technological artefacts in their current form.



  1. Reblogged this on dropitintheocean and commented:
    Nice one!

  2. […] Affordance is a tricky term because it can mean both how people use the properties of a technology for a particular purpose and how the actual properties of a technology allow for a range of uses (Hammond, 2010). So what are some of the affordances  of 3D virtual environments that can make it a valuable learning tool?  These include: […]

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