In a previous post I quoted Zhen Li, who wrote:
there is a risk of conflating flexibility of the technological artefact and interpretive flexibility of agents. If the structural properties of technologies are dependent on current agents’ practice and are thus inherently open to transformation, actors would generically enjoy a very high degree of freedom – ‘at any time they could have acted otherwise, intervening for change or for maintenance’ (Archer 2010)
This is a very important point to discuss when it comes to tinkering. But there is a kind of middle term here that we should bring out, which is the mysterious notion of affordance.
Affordance is a neologism coined by American ecological psychologist James Gibson back in the 60s. The term – originally introduced as a pillar of an ecological theory on visual perception – got picked up by Donald Norman in the 80s who tried (unsuccessfully) to use it to help designers create “better interfaces”.
What an affordance is – that nobody knows. I myself have tried to do my bit, but I did not really make any significant step to mention. Why is it so? My take is that affordance is fundamentally resorting to a set of metaphysical assumptions – let’s call them this way, which are not indeed dominant in the Western mind-set. Affordance, in other words, could be a notion found in some kind of Taoist treatise. You may get an hint from this:
What the idea of affordance implies is a radical re-description of the way in which we engage the environment and the resources in it. What is still the prevalent way of describing our engagements with the environment is, broadly speaking, a computational view based on information processing. So, basically, what it says is that we get the data from the environment through our sensory peripheries (our senses). All these bits and pieces get processed in our “mind” according to certain laws. So, what is cognitive is the kind of information processing that takes place in the mind, which is a sort of monad removed from the environment. Gibson challenged that (well..not exactly that, yet…) saying that perception is in fact much closer to action so that, to make a rather trivial example, when we see a chair, we see a chair (four legs, etc.) and sitting. That is, what we can actually do with it. Sitting, he argues, is directly perceived. There is no internal information processing that would lead us to that. Sitting constitutes an affordance.
Now, this is exactly the problem, because then we would be tempted to say that an affordance is a function(ality) that an object has. Or we can go to the other extreme saying that an affordance depends exclusively on the way in which we interpret an object. Interestingly, we find exactly the same kind of dualism in educational technology. That is what Zhen Li pointed to. There is, though, another way to look at this and it is connected to tinkering.
Tinkering is the kind of activity in which our means-to-an-end type of thinking collapses. So, when we tinker, we are basically “groping around” as to what to do and how to do it – means and end. So, there is a sort of endless and highly dynamic negotiation between what we can actually do given the resources that we have and what is somehow desirable (or what we can actually see as desirable in the amidst of a chaotic situation). And this is precisely where the notion of affordance comes into play. Affordance can be viewed as the actual result of this sort of negotiation. (Ok, negotiation is not the right word.)
So, if we go back to Zhen Li’s warning of not conflating flexibility of the technological artefact and interpretive flexibility of agents, we see that when tinkering this is exactly what we don’t do. We may say that these are the two polarities through which tinkering becomes possible. That is, they create a sort of “trading zone”, which is what enables tinkering.