Archive for April, 2008


Affordance as an ideality or context

April 27, 2008

There was a reference to Ilyenkov and significances as Soviet version of affordances in one paper of artifact ecologies that i wanted to check out for a while ago.

The ideal form is a form of a thing, but a form that is outside the thing, and is to be found in man as a form of his dynamic life activity, as goals and needs. Or conversely, it is a form of man’s life activity, but outside man, in the form of the thing he creates. “Ideality” as such exists only in the constant succession and replacement of these two forms of its “external embodiment” and does not coincide with either of them taken separately. It exists only through the unceasing process of the transformation of the form of activity – into the form of a thing and back – the form of a thing into the form of activity (of social man, of course).

Try to identify the “ideal” with any one of these two forms of its immediate existence – and it no longer exists. All you have left is the “substantial”, entirely material body and its bodily functioning. The “form of activity” as such turns out to be bodily encoded in the nervous system, in intricate neuro-dynamic stereotypes and “cerebral mechanisms” by the pattern of the external action of the material human organism, of the individual’s body. And you will discover nothing “ideal” in that body. The form of the thing created by man, taken out of the process of social life activity, out of the process of man-nature metabolism, also turns out to be simply the material form of the thing, the physical shape of an external body and nothing more. A word, taken out of the organism of human intercourse, turns out to be nothing more than an acoustic or optical phenomenon. “In itself” it is no more “ideal” than the human brain.

And only in the reciprocating movement of the two opposing “metamorphoses” – forms of activity and forms of things in their dialectically contradictory mutual transformations – DOES THE IDEAL EXIST.

One side-thought from it is that as different cultures construct their idealities to the same boundary objects, basically the ideality for certain objects is never disappearing, just changing. The tools or mediators, what the ideality actually represents, can objectively exits out of their creator’s culture due to being boundary objects and forming ideality to some other cultures as well.
This makes all tools boundary objects as long as several cultures hold and develop the ideality in action.

But then i came to this paper today.
The Turner paper classifies affordances into simple Gibson’s affordances and complex affordances that embody history and practice.

Very interesting is Turner’s approach to consider boundary objects as objects that are useful for different communities, and thus boundary objects represent the culturally emergent affordances.

He makes a kind of leap in his conclusion: affordances are boundary object between ‘use’ and ‘design for use’ – designed artefacts are boundary objects both between and within the communities of practice of designers and users.

He also sees that basically use, context and affordance is the same thing and refers to the elements that are part of activity systems.

It seems that very often we need to use some label, but all the labels: affordance, context, ideality are so meaning-laden in certain contexts, and a lot of confusion emerges if our theory is changed but we use still the words from the previous theories.

Affordance as context
Phil Turner
Interacting with Computers 17 (2005) 787–800

Significances are described as real and objective, but dependent on us as they are a product of our purposive, sensuous work.

Hartson (2003) has proposed a four-fold division of (simple) affordance for the purposes of designing for interaction. These four categories are (a) cognitive affordance; (b) physical affordance; (c) sensory affordance and finally, (d) functional affordance.

‘Real affordances are not nearly as important as perceived affordances; it is perceived affordances that tell the user what actions can be performed on an object and, to some extent, how to do them’ (Norman, 1988).

Perceived affordances are ‘often more about conventions than about reality’ (Norman, 1999, 124)

Turner and Turner (2002) create an explicit three layer model of affordance:
– ‘basic level’ equating with simple usability/ergonomics,
– a ‘middle layer’ matching user tasks (and/ or) embodiment and finally,
– a ‘top level’ corresponding to the purpose of the activity
for which ‘cultural affordance’ are appropriate.

Cole (1996) notes that mediating artefacts embody their own ‘developmental histories’ which is a reflection of their use. That is, these artefacts have been manufactured or produced and continue to be used as part of, and in relation to, intentional human actions.

Boundary objects (Star, 1989) are resources or artefacts which support the work of separate communities such as different departments within an organisation or even between very different communities of practice. To be useful by these different communities they must be sufficiently flexible to be used in different ways, by different people for different purpose in a range of contexts. The term ‘boundary object’ is, of course, primarily descriptive rather than a design imperative as they are seen to develop or ‘evolve’ within and between communities by embodying custom and practice.

Ilyenkov begins his argument by identifying two classes of nonmaterial phenomena namely:
1. mental phenomena such as thoughts, beliefs and feelings and
2. phenomena that are neither material nor mental—meaning and values, such as goodness.

Through human activity we idealise our world (i.e. endow it with meaning) and in so doing we also endow it with properties that come to exist completely independently of us.
As Ilyenkov puts it:
Ideality is a characteristic of things, but not as they are defined by nature, but by labour, the transforming, form-creating activity of social beings, their aim-mediated, sensuously objective activity.
The ideal form is the form of a thing created by social human labour. Or conversely, it is the form of labour realized [osushchestvlennyi] in the substance of nature, ‘embodied’ in it, ‘alienated’ in it and ‘realized’ [realizovannyi] in it, and thereby confronting its very creator as the form of a thing or as a relation between things, which are placed in this relation (which they otherwise would not have entered) by human beings, by their labour (Ilyenkov, 1977: 157).

Ideal properties such as significances are thus real, objective but not independent of us as they are products of meaning-endowing in human activity.

The ideal exists in the collective not the individual mind.
While social life is a product of the collective, it is experienced by individuals as a set of given rules, practices, tools and artefacts.

Through purposive use objects acquire significance.
Ideality is like a stamp or inscription on the substance of nature by social human activity.
A significance makes a thing knowable.

Ilyenkov notes that activity is the source of the world we inhabit and the principal expression of how we inhabit it.

Some significance has to be attached to the thing through the process of the object’s incorporation into the sphere of human activity which is not necessarily true of an affordance—particularly simple affordances.

Objects acquire this ideal content not as the result of being accessed by an individual mind, but by the historically developing activities of communities of practice.

In conclusion, from a holistic or phenomenological perspective, affordance, use and context are one. From a design perspective affordance is not an intangible, elusive property of interactive systems, it might better be thought of as a boundary object between ‘use’ and ‘design for use’ .

Cole, M., 1996. Cultural Psychology. Harvard University Press.
Ilyenkov, E. (1977) Problems of Dialectical Materialism (Translated by A. Bluden). Progress Publishers. Also available from
Norman, D.A., 1988. The Psychology Of Everyday Things. Basic Books, NY.
Star, S.L., 1989. The structure of ill-structured solutions: boundary objects and heterogeneous distributed problem solving. In: Grasser, L., Huhns, M. (Eds.), Distributed Artificial Intelligence. Pitman, London.
Turner, P., Turner, S., 2002. An affordance-based framework for CVE evaluation, People and Computers XVII— The Proceedings of the Joint HCI-UPA Conference 2002 pp. 89–104.


Affordance networks

April 26, 2008

Yesterday Pirkko Hyvonen mentioned an interesting paper of the affordance networks. In this paper the ecological theory of knowing is elaborated that is in line with what i have been dealing with in my research.

It seems they eventually have same idea like i developed of an activity system as the place where affordances emerge as constraints (in their case affordance network).

They assume that when connecting learners to ecological networks where they can learn through engaged participation, the affordance networks must become activated.

What is different from my understanding is that in this paper they try to use the Gibson’s effectivity term “effectivity set, he or she is more likely to perceive and interact with the world in certain ways”, but i think behind this term effectivity we should look embodied knowledge and embodied simulation processes, which have been discussed in relation to mirror neuron studies.

Effectivity coupling with affordance networks is seen by them as intentionally bound system initiated by person or by the environment (external lifeworld), but i think that according to the embodied simulation theory such system or process is activated in the mutual interaction of goals and envoronment:

Hommel (2003), assumes that action control to all behavioral acts is ecologically delegated to the environment – when planning actions in terms of anticipated goals, the sensory-motor assemblies needed to reach the goal are simultaneously selectively activated in the environment, and bind together into a coherent whole that serves as an action-plan, facilitating the execution of the goal-directed actions through the interaction between the environment and its embodied sensory-motor activations.

Curriculum-Based Ecosystems: Supporting Knowing From an Ecological Perspective
Sasha A. Barab, & Wolff-Michael Roth

Educational Researcher, Vol. 35, No. 5, 3-13 (2006)

Knowledge acquisition may be overrated and that a more important role of education is to stimulate meaningful participation (Sfard, 1998), or what we describe as effectivity/affordance

Central to the situative perspective is the belief that one should abandon the treatment of concepts as self-contained entities and instead conceive of them as tools—tools that can be fully understood only through use.

The central tenets of this perspective with respect to knowing are that:
(a) knowing is an activity—not a thing;
(b) knowing is always contextualized—not abstract;
(c) knowing is reciprocally constructed in the individual–environment interaction—not objectively defined or subjectively created;
(d) knowing is a functional stance on the interaction—not a “truth” (Barab & Duffy, 2000).

Consistent with the situativity perspective, we argue for an ecological theory of what it means to know. Such a theory acknowledges the world as being structured to support goal-directed behaviors, while at the same time placing the realization of these meanings as part of the individual–environment relation.

Situating knowing and meaning as part of individual–environment relations, rather than solely
in the world or in the individual.

From ecological perspective, learning is a process of becoming prepared to effectively engage dynamic networks in the world in a goal-directed manner (Hoffmann & Roth, 2005).

Affordance networks, in contrast to the perceptual affordances described by Gibson, are extended in both time and space and can include sets of perceptual and cognitive affordances that collectively come to form the network for particular goal sets.

Affordance networks are not entirely delimited by their material, social, or cultural structure, although one may have elements of all of these; instead, they are functionally bound in terms of the facts, concepts, tools, methods, practices, commitments, and even people that can be enlisted toward the satisfaction of a particular goal.

In this way, affordance networks are dynamic sociocultural configurations that take on particular shape as a result of material, social, political, economic, cultural, historical, and even personal factors but always in relation to particular functions.

Affordance networks are not read onto the world, but instead continually “transact” (are coupled) with the world as part of a perception–action cycle in which each new action potentially expands or contracts one’s affordance network. Rather than separate the thinking individual from the physical environment, the ecological paradigm that underlies our thinking transcends the mind-body dualism, instead situating meaning in the dynamic transaction between mind and body.

The particular shape of a network changes with the dynamic interplay of these factors.

For a key bounding on the shape of any network for a particular individual is the effectivity set through which she comes to form relations with the network.

Connecting learners into ecological systems means coupling effectivity sets and affordance networks.

Each individual has a life-world.
The environment, from the vantage of any one individual, includes material, social, and even cultural resources, all of which share the act of successful participation.

Life-worlds are always structured in patterned ways that are functionally meaningful for an individual within some societally defined activity and are therefore inherently intelligible to others (Leont’ev, 1981; Mikhailov, 1980).

Life-world is an emergent phenomenon, with its particular shape being a result of the affordance network/effectivity set coupling, and persons’ goals being an essential factor contributing to whether a particular network becomes enlisted in supporting the emergence of one’s life-world.

Like activity systems (e.g., Engeström, 1987), affordance networks are functionally bounded, which implies that the boundaries are dependent on the intended outcome or function that they serve (i.e., they are situated with respect to the task at hand). Boundaries of a particular network lie in those aspects of a performance necessary to functionally address a particular goal to which the network has value.

For a particular individual, constraints exist in social, cultural, economic, and political factors such that they mediate whether a tool, resource, or even a particular stance can be found in her network.

An effectivity set constitutes those behaviors that an individual can in fact produce so as to realize and even generate affordance networks. When an individual has a particular effectivity set, he or she is more likely to perceive and interact with the world in certain ways—even noticing certain shapes of networks that are unavailable to others.

Effectivity sets are properties of individual–environment transactions out of which a new epistemic frame might emerge.

The dynamic coupling of an effectivity set to an affordance network forms what we refer to as an intentionally bound system. An intentionally bound system is not simply defined by the environment or the individual but emerges through the dynamic transaction that couples effectivity sets with affordance networks.

This coupling begins with an intention; whether the intention begins with the learner or the environment is inconsequential from an ecological perspective, in that the two are simply aspects of the same phenomenon.


Learning experiences from iCamp and beyond

April 22, 2008

Today i have a talk of iCamp pedagogical trials in Wienna University to the people who organize elearning courses in this university. Its combines some preliminary and older findings. However a deeper insight is yet to come after 3rd trial ends and we can collect the activity patterns.


social nature of language

April 16, 2008

One of the theoretical pillars is the hybrid ecology framework is embodied simulation, elaborated in the studies that Gallese refers below. His new paper, dedicated to the social nature of language is generalizing many studies. If to think how it is useful in our experimental ideas, we can think that not only texts, but also acustic or visual artifacts (eg. in Youtube) may trigger actions similarly like we believe the narratives might do.

What seems to be missing from his explanations is how these visual, acustic or verbal cues are triggering different actions ecologically same way like in the environment we evoke different affordances that let us accomplish our intentions and actions.

However, while in his experiments such non-stability shows no relation between certain type of clues and appropriate action statistically, considering this person-specific activation of certain actions seems to be necessary if we are supporting the Ecological psychology framework.

From an uncorrected proof from V. Gallese page:
Mirror neurons and the social nature of language: The neural exploitation hypothesis
Vittorio Gallese

By neural exploitation, social cognition and language can be linked the experiential domain of action.

The perception of shared environment and behaviors helps in maintaining alignment between conversational partners (Clark & Wilkes-Gibbs, 1986; Pickering & Garrod, 2004).

Embodied simulation is a specific mechanism through which the brain/body system models its interactions with the world (Gallese, 2001, 2003, 2005, 2006).

Besides visual input, mirror neurons are also activated during the observation of partially hidden actions, when the action outcome can be predicted – the anticipated final goal-states of the motor acts (Umilta et al., 2001).

Nonhuman primates possess the ability to deduce what others know about the world on the basis of ostensive behavioral cues, like the direction of gaze.

Embodied conceptualization mechanism grounds meaning in the situated and experience-dependent systematic interactions with the world (Gallese & Lakoff, 2005)

Barrett et al. (in press) have argued that apparent cognitive complexity of the social domain emerges from the interaction of brain, body and the world, rather than being the outcome of the level of intrinsic complexity of primate species.

Viewing social cognition as an embodied and situated enterprise offers the possibility of new neuroscientific approach to language (Clark, 1997; Barsalou, 1999; Lackoff & Johnsone, 1999).

Meaning is the outcome of our situated interactions with the world.
With the discovery of written language, meaning is amplified as it frees itself from being dependent upon specific instantions of actual experience.

Language evokes the totality of possibilities for action the world puts upon us, and structures action within a web of related meanings.

Our way of being depends what we act, how we do it, and how the world responds to us.

When we speak, by means of the shared neural networks activated by embodied simulation, we experience the presence of others in ourselves and of ourselves in others.

According to the embodiment theory the neural structures presiding over action execution should also play a role in understanding the semantic context of same actions when verbally described.
Action contributes to the sentence comprehension.

The prediction of the embodiment theory of language understanding is that when individuals listen to action-related sentences, their mirror neuron system should be modulated which should influence the primary motor cortex, henceforth the production of movements it controls.

The experimental data shows that processing sentences describing actions activates different sectors of motoneuron system, depending of the effector used in the listened action.

Silent reading of words referring to actions of arm and leg led to the activation of different sectors of pre-motor areas controlling motor acts of the body congruent with the referential meaning of the read action words (Hauk, Johnsrude & Pulvermüller, 2004).

The mirror-neuron system is involved not only in understanding visually presented actions, but also in mapping acustically or visually presented action-related sentences.

The precise functional relevance of mirror neuron system and embodied simulation in the process of language understanding remains unclear.

When in the course of evolution selective pressures led to the emergence of language, the same neural circuits in charge of controlling the hierarchy of goal-related actions might have been exploited to serve the newly acquired function of language syntax.


amateurs and volunteered geography

April 8, 2008

An interesting paper was advertised in one of the Springer newsletters:

Citizens as sensors: the world of volunteered geography
Michael F. Goodchild
GeoJournal (2007) 69:211–221

Why i find this paper interesting is that it asks the questions why do people do this. We truly don’t believe that it is done because to make better maps. Why would an amateur geographer do it?

I would just think of processes like:
– creating niches for ourselves, for better embodiment and enaction
– playfully following some cultural practices because we can, and because the environment calls for such actions,
– leaving for ourselves mental maps to free our thinking same way as we have learned to trust the files in our computer as an extra memory?
– streaming for self-administered, personalized, user-tagged and thus more appropriately filtered content for triggering our emotions and actions

Here are some from the paper:

Why is it that citizens who have no obvious incentive are nevertheless willing to spend large amounts of time creating the content of Volunteered Geographic Information sites?

Self-promotion is clearly an important motivator of Internet activity

Public personal usage – Many users volunteer information to Web 2.0 sites as a convenient way of making it available to friends and relations, irrespective of the fact that it becomes available to all.

Personal satisfaction from seeing their own contributions appear in the growing patchwork.

While geographic naming has been centralized and standardized, and assigns no role to obscure individuals, the new web 2.0 environments have given rise to the composition of layers of new kind of volunteered geographic information.

Remote sensing with satellites has replaced mapping.

Very few people know the latitude and longitude of their home, but in normal human discourse it is place-names that provide the basis of geographic referencing.

In Wikimapia…

anyone with an Internet connection can select an area on the Earth’s surface and provide it with a description, including links to other sources. Anyone can edit entries, and volunteer reviewers monitor the results, checking for accuracy and significance.

Google Earth and Google Maps popularized the term mash-up, the ability to superimpose geographic
information from sources distributed over the Web, many of them created by amateurs.


A collection of individuals acting independently, using shared protocols and standards, and responding to the needs of local communities, can together create a patchwork coverage.

Networks of human sensors

Humans themselves, each equipped with some working subset of the five senses and with the intelligence to compile and interpret what they sense, and each free to rove the surface of
the planet.


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