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An Opportunity Afforded

This is why some people will look at a library and see a wealth of opportunity, while others will see the same space and same books and apprehend only barriers to entry or exclusion from a world in which they think they have no part to play.

My wife and I are travelling for the festive season, and it has provided the ideal opportunity for pondering affordance theory. No, it is not as dry as it may seem. In The Times this week, the science team riffed on the theme to try and explain Why men ignore dirty dishes with a clean conscience. But the opportunities for the application of the theory are much broader than the age old Battle of the Sexes. But to begin at the beginning.

Affordance, in a nutshell, is defined as what an environment or object offers an individual. For example, if I go to an ice cream parlour, the environment affords me the opportunity to eat ice cream. The term, as a philosophical theory, was coined in the 1960s by American psychologist James J. Gibson. But it was not until his 1979 book The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception that the most well known definition emerged:

The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill. The verb to afford is found in the dictionary, the noun affordance is not. I have made it up. I mean by it something that refers to both the environment and the animal in a way that no existing term does. It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment.

In this passage, apart from the obvious ecological niche, is the crucial notion of complementarity. In that not all environments or objects afford the same opportunity, as opportunity is the symbiotic interaction between the person — or animal, to use Gibson’s term. In this interaction, the capabilities of the individual reign supreme.

An example is the different affordance of opportunity a fully stocked kitchen provides an adult who can cook and a toddler who cannot. The adult is afforded the opportunity to prepare a meal, while for the toddler, all that is afforded is a series of doors which cannot be opened and bench tops which cannot be reached. This contrast of affordance is important because it calls out the respective enjoyment or absence of privilege — that much opined but much misunderstood term that is bandied about constantly these days.

But before we gallop off on the hobbyhorse of privilege and opportunity, we also need to apprehend that affordance also involves intent or need. This is particularly close to my heart this festive season. I am fortunate to be presented with mountains of food, thus a kitchen, as per the example above, affords me with little as I have no intent or need to eat any more than is being routinely trotted out at mealtime for my delectation. Yet water, in a space of heated rooms and excessive food, is still an ever present need. In this context, affordance comprises an essential or initial opportunity based on my capability or privilege, and an adaptable or changeable opportunity based on my current need. In that as a moderately capable adult, I have the capacity to capitalise on the environment as is, and to modify or augment the environment to provide what I need.

In this way, affordance moves beyond the value-neutral language of physics and introduces the notion of a value-rich conceptualisation of our surroundings. But here, value-rich must be understood as having both positive and negative connotations — with the potential for benefit or injury to the individual. With this, comes the notion of affordance for the self and affordance for another. The beauty of this, if we step away from the progressive obsession with privilege and injury, is it grants us an understanding of objects and environments as forming part of the ‘shared practices of society’.

This evolving understanding of affordance comes naturally to children, when learning how to use an object or interact with an environment, because they apprehend not only the conventional meaning or use, but also develop an innovative alternative. They learn a knife can be dangerous, that it can cut the self and cause harm, but they also learn it can be used to chop and prepare food — a process which nourishes and improves the self. Through this process of learning and adaption, they become a member of the social unit in which they live. And through their use, or abuse, of the objects and spaces, can either contribute or detract from their immediate society.

By the time we reach adulthood, the objects, and spaces with which we have interacted begin to do more than offer affordance, they also prime our thinking. This is why some people will look at a library and see a wealth of opportunity, while others will see the same space and same books and apprehend only barriers to entry or exclusion from a world in which they think they have no part to play. In this way, our perception of the affordance offered by an object or environment strongly determines our political and societal preferences. For example, whether we see government as inherently oppressive and prefer an anarchic state or if we see it as providing a bulwark against nihilism and the dystopia of lawlessness.

This reveals the world around us as a rich tapestry of affordance, if we take the time to recognise it. But as above, in noting that affordance can be both positive and negative, it can also be false, hidden, or perceptible. A conceptualisation that was developed by William Gaver in the 1990s and is important because it adds a key framework of understanding regarding when and if affordance is present:

Figure depicting a yes / no axis of affordance and perceptual information
Figure 2.

Distinguishing affordances from perceptual information about them is useful in understanding ease of use. Common examples of affordances refer to perceptible affordances, in which there is perceptual information available for an existing affordance (Figure 2). If there is no information available for an existing affordance, it is hidden and must be inferred from other evidence. If information suggests a nonexistent affordance, a false affordance exists upon which people may mistakenly try to act. Finally, people will usually not think of a given action when there is no affordance for it nor any perceptual information suggesting it.

Gaver, Technology Affordances

It is misguided to say that monarchy, or religion, or government, or the society in which we live is oppressive. Rather, it is how we have learned, or failed to learn, to enhance our capabilities and in consequence the affordance we perceive in the world around us. Seeking the revolutionary year zero is not and never will be the panacea we think. Because day one of this brave new world will only see us rinse and repeat the past. The reason for this is that resetting still leaves us with the primary, though I fully accept not only, problem we faced with the old world — our own capabilities. Unless we improve our capability to find benefit from the object or environment, we will only end up in the same circumstances as before.

Better we take a beat, think about alternative ways in which objects or environments can afford us benefit, enhance our capabilities, and derive benefit not just for ourselves, but for our family and neighbours. Only in this way can we leverage the resources at our fingertips to build a better world, rather than making a future which is nothing more than a revised ordering of the follies of the past.

Good night, and good luck.

Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash.

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