Archive for January, 2009


Binding affordances and GIS in hybrid places

January 23, 2009

There is an interesting paper that provides some ideas how to use affordances together with geographical coordinates. This would enable the practical exploration of geolocative spaces.

However, this framework is yet limited in describing hybrid places – the various virtual artifacts and meanings and action cules that are simultaneously mapped geolocatively must be part of the place description with affordances.

The affordances are individually or culturally defined. This duality of bottom up definition and top-down use of such affordance-rich coordinates should be part of the technical platforms of mapping and exploring hybrid places.

An Affordance-Based Model of Place in GIS
Troy Jordan, Martin Raubal*, Bryce Gartrell, and Max J. Egenhofer

This paper presents a methodology to model places with affordances.
Modeling places with affordances integrates cognitive and engineering aspects, therefore leading to a knowledge-representation that comes closer to the user.
The integration of affordance-based models of places into future GIS will lead to a better communication between users and systems.

We advocate the use of affordances—those things which an object, an assemblage of objects, or an environment enables one to do—for modeling place within GIS.
In order to come up with a scientific concept of place it is necessary to accommodate the relatively objective view of the theoretical scientist (i.e., a decentered view) as well as the subjective view of the individual (i.e., a centered view) who directly experiences a specific place.

Tuan (1977): place is space infused with human meaning.
Experiences of places involve perception, cognition, and affection. Therefore, a place cannot simply be described as the location of one object relative to others. The concept of place has to integrate both its location and its meaning in the context of human action.

The geographical concept of place refers to the areal context of events, objects, and actions, and includes both natural elements and human constructions. It also incorporates the notion of change through time.
Places are a human invention, engendered by naming, applying typologies (eg. suburb, ghetto), picking out symbols (eg Pyramids-Egipt), telling stories, and doing things.
Mapping space by GIS, though useful, does not always match the way people think about their world.
Integrating a model of how people conceptualize and perceive places into GIS will enable to use GIS to make important decisions about places.

We use the following interpretation of the means-end hierarchy for a place (Rasmussen and Pejtersen 1995):

Functional Purpose: purposes and values

Abstract Function: flow of mass, energy, information, people and monetary value

Generalized Function: general work activities

Physical function: specific work processes and physical processes

Physical form: Appearance, Location and configuration of Material Objects

Zaff (1995): “Affordances are measurable aspects of the environment that can only be measured in terms of the individual.
Particularly, it is important to understand the action relevant properties of the environment in terms of values intrinsic to the agent.

Affordances, therefore, play a key role in an experiential view of space (Kuhn, 1996) and place, because they offer a user-centered perspective.

Affordances of physical space can be grouped into four categories reflecting different task situations (Kuhn, 1996):

affordances for an individual user (e.g., move),

a user and an individual entity (e.g., objectify),

a user and multiple entities (e.(e.g., communicate)

We suggest the following 6 aspects of Place:

Physical features: Places consist of collections of objects. Each person perceives some set of affordances for a given small-scale object or collection of objects in large-scale space.

Actions: People perform actions in places. As we have seen, actions are one of the most
important aspects that gives meaning to a place. By defining the relationships between intentions, functions, and physical features, we uncover which actions are possible, and which are constrained.

Narrative: Stories are told in order to help characterize the uniqueness of a place as we define normative/acceptable behavior, by revealing the past actions of others. Establish a historical record: What a place looked like, who was there, what they did, and why theydid it.

Symbolic representations/Names: Certain places are referenced by symbols (e.g., New York City is often referenced as the “Big Apple”) having symbolic and/or mythical meanings. Users can represent complex objects with a simpler (abstract) representation.

(why not tags?)

Socioeconomic and Cultural factors: People identify themselves with places socioeconomically. Different cultures afford different behavior in places.

Typologies: People categorize places in order to understand what is new, in terms of what is already understood.

We suggest that the integration of places into GIS would lead to a better match with people’s real-world spatial interactions than do coordinate-based models and, therefore, to a more user-friendly GIS. Our approach outlines the broad categories of information that must be gathered in order to successfully answer place-based queries. The actual work of establishing a useful affordance hierarchy is formidable. Much work needs to be done to consider the perceptual aspaffordances, especially as they need to be mapped into the electronic domain of GIS.

Kuhn W. (1996). Handling Data Spatially: Spatializing User Interfaces. in: Kraak M. and Molenaar M. (Eds.), SDH’96, Advances in GIS Research II, Proceedings. 2, pp. 13B.1-13B.23, International Geographical Union, Delft.
Rasmussen J. and Pejtersen A. M. (1995). Virtual Ecology of Work. In Flack J., Hancock P., Caird J., Vicente K. (Eds.) Global Perspectives on the Ecology ofNew Jersey, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Tuan Y. (1977). Space and Place. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.
Zaff B. (1995). Designing with Affordances in Mind. In Flack J., Hancock P., Caird J., Vicente K. (Eds.) Global Perspectives on the Ecology of Human-Machine Systems (volume 1), pp. 121-156. Hillsdale, New Jersey, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


Swarms, semiotic fitness, ecologies – ideas triggered from J.Hoffmeyer’s papers

January 18, 2009

I have been reading some articles of Jesper Hoffmeyer about the swarms, semiotics, semiosphere and ecologies and doing some thought connections with niches, affordances in new learning ecologies.

I believe that in new media communities the meaning/action based traces are left in the environment that determine the niches for these communities and also influence the niches of other communities.

The communities perceive/anticipate/translate meaning and action relevant cues (affrdances) from ongoing meaning-making and actions, as well as, from the traces of meanings and actions left in their niches.

The translation from cues/traces left in the environment and the relevant actions of the communities are explainable with the swarm-phenomena and with the general cultural semiosphere model.

Swarms are communities in which decision-making takes place based on cues/traces left by individual swarm members in the environment or picked up from their real activities. These cues determine the semiotic niche for the swarm community.

The semiotic fitness term applies to describe that specific cues are recognized and interpreted in the semiotic niche to establish well-being for the swarm.

The integration of the cues of other swarms may influence the swarm behaviour. The swarms need to translate the align, unfamiliar action relevant cues from the environment to their own system.

In general each swarm always deals with the semiotic niche that is dual – our own cues and align cues.
The borderline between common and align cues in the semiotic niche is constantly re-developed in the course of action.
The cultural semiosphere model (see Lotman, 1990) describes such a dual structure as a necessary condition for translation acts to take place, which may lead to new types of meanings and actions to emerge in the semiotic niche.

Since the swarms are entities at different levels, consisting of other swarms we can also talk of semiotic sub-niches for a particular community. The actions distinguish one niche from another – in principle the same ecology may provide different niches in which specific semiotic fitnesses are in operation.

Communities are not different of termites – they pile meaning and action traces as artifacts or system use preferences, and orientate and make decisions using these piles.

If we look communities in action – the same set of tools and artifacts may be interpreted and used differently in the course of individual learning, and when these individuals switch to collaborative problem-solving actions. Personal learning environments are changing in different semiotic niches.

Some interesting parts from the Hoffmeyer papers:

Hoffmeyer, J. (1995). The global semiosphere. Paper presented at the 5th IASS congress in Berkeley, June 1995. In Irmengard Rauch and Gerald F. Carr (eds.): Semiotics Around the World. Proceedings of the Fifth Congress of the International Association for Semiotic Studies. Berkeley 1994. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter 1997, pp. 933-936.

The behavioural and communicative aspects of animal life are considered but they are generally not allowed to play any fundamental role in the dynamics of ecosystems or in evolutionary theory (Levins and Lewontin 1985). This bias towards the material and energetic aspects of ecosystem dynamics may have blinded us to the importance of the semiotic web unfolding throughout ecosystems.

Survival through semiosis implies a dynamic creativity. In addition to vertical semiotic system, i.e. genetic communication down through the generations, all organisms also partake in a horizontal semiotic system, i.e. communication throughout the ecological space (Hoffmeyer and Emmeche 1991).

The horizontal or ecological semiotic network has gained an increasing autonomy relative to the genetic semiotic system, i.e. the authority to make decisions was gradually delegated from the genomic systems to the organisms themselves.

The most important in horizontal semiotic system is the organisms’ capacity for anticipation, the possibility of foreseeing actual events and protect oneself against them or otherwise derive advantage from them.

The populations of organisms are forced to occupy specific semiotic niches. The organisms will have to master a set of signs of visual, acoustic, olfactory, tactile and chemical origin in order to survive in the semiosphere. This semiosphere poses constraints or boundary conditions to the organism populations.

The semiotic demands to populations are often a decisive challenge to success.

Note. In another article he uses term semiotic fitness.

Wherever there has developed a habit there will also exist an organism for whom this habit has become a sign. There can be no doubt that the principle that one organisms’ habits becoming another organisms’ signs is at the very heart of the evolutionary process.

Ecosystems would not be stable were it not for the millions of semiotic processes built on habits which themselves were formerly built on other habits.


Hoffmeyer, J. (2005). The swarming body. Paper presented at the 5th IASS congress in Berkeley, June 1995. In Irmengard Rauch and Gerald F. Carr (eds.): Semiotics Around the World. Proceedings of the Fifth Congress of the International Association for Semiotic Studies. Berkeley 1994. Berlin/New York: Mouton de
Gruyter 1997, pp. 937-940.

Semiosis is the basic principle of life. Semiotic competence is delegated to decentralised units like swarms.

A swarm has been defined as a set of (mobile) agents which are liable to communicate directly or indirectly (by acting on their local environment) with each other, and which collectively carry out a distributed problem solving.

The body swarm is not built on ten thousand nearly identical units, rather it should be seen as a swarm of swarms, i.e., a huge swarm of more or less overlapping swarms of very different kinds. And the minor swarms again are swarm-entities, so that we get a hierarchy of swarms.

At all levels these swarms are engaged in distributed problem solving based on an infinitely complicated web of semetic interaction patterns.

French biologist P.-P. Grassé made a semiotically very interesting analysis of
nest construction in termites (Grassé 1959). His conclusion was: “No direct interaction is necessary between the animals, since co-ordination is assured solely through the artefacts resulting from their behaviour.”

Hoffmeyer defines a swarm conception at the body-mind level: Swarms of immune cells interact with swarms of nerve cells in maintaining the somatic ecology. The view of a centralised authority in the brain controlling the ignorant body fades out of sight and is replaced by an interactive organisation based upon the distributed problem solving capacity of myriads of cell swarms working in parallel.

The transformation of molecules to signs opens for an unending semiogenic evolution based on semetic interaction patterns between entities at all levels. The swarm of cells constituting a human body should be seen as a swarm of swarms, i.e., a huge swarm of overlapping swarms of very different kinds.


Hoffmeyer, J. (1998). The Unfolding Semiosphere. In Gertrudis Van de Vijver, Stanley Salthe and Manuela Delpos (eds.), Evolutionary Systems. Biological and Epistemological Perspectives on Selection and Self-Organization. Dordrecht: Kluwer 1998, pp. 281-293.

Darwin was careful to underline that natural selection was a process very different from artificial selection in that no intention or purpose lay behind it. Natural selection was a selection without a selector (or even a selection principle since organic evolution had no privileged direction).

Note: If we consider that basic functioning of organisms appears through swarm-based semetic interaction patterns (units in swarms and swarms of swarms communicate directly or indirectly by acting on their local environment with each other, and carry collectively out a distributed problem solving), is it really the natural selection without a selector? It seems that in this case these units of swarms and the sub-swarms, and finally the swarm itself becomes a selector?

In the macro evolutionary perspective we can distinguish at least three dominating instances of emergence, which changed the rules of the evolutionary game:

a) The emergence of galaxies (the emergence of difference, i.e. the creation of lumps of certain matter in the middle of nothing).

b) The emergence of life (emergence of distinction, self-interpretation and code-duality, i.e. as analog codes the organisms recognise and interact with each other in the ecological space giving rise to a horizontal semiotic system, while as digital codes they (after eventual recombination through meiosis and fertilisation in sexually reproducing species) are passively carried forward in time between generations.

DNA does not contain the key to its own interpretation.
In sexually reproducing organisms only the fertilised egg ‘knows’ how to interpret DNA, i.e. to use its text for the construction of the organism.The interpretant of the DNA message is buried in the cytoskeleton of the fertilised egg (and the growing embryo).

Note: The role of ecological pressure and niche influence in the evolution may be considered as part of swarm-swarm interactions?

The appearance on the planet of self-interpretation leads us to the emergence of linguistic culture.

c) The emergence of linguistic culture (emergence of experience and cultural evolution through translations back and forth between experience of reality and its linguistic re-description).

Being self-conscious selves humans are the result of the evolutionary creation of a whole new kind of code-duality, a ‘meta’-code-duality so to say, a
duality of reality as analog coded experience perpetually interacting with its digital linguistic redescription in an unending chain of translations back and forth. The dynamic properties and creativity of this code-duality is the core of cultural evolution.

Note. Can we consider evolutionary interactions of organisms with their niches (eg. affordance-based approach) from the semiotic perspective. In this case the emergence of ‘liguistic culture’ between various swarms and their niches appears as a ‘cultural evolution’ already before self-conscious humans?

Semetic interactions refer to interactions in which regularities (habits) developed by one species (or individual) successively become used (interpreted) as signs by the individuals of the same or another species, thereby eliciting new habits in this species eventually to become – sooner or later – signs for other individuals, and so on in a branching and unending web integrating the ecosystems of the planet into a global semiosphere (Hoffmeyer 1993)

Semiotic fitness

Fitness depends on a relation, something can be fit only in a given context.
Genetic fitness may be a useful term in genetics, but if evolution is concerned what matters is not genetic fitness but semiotic fitness.
Genes may be fit only under certain environmental conditions.
But if genotypes and envirotypes (Odling-Smee and Patten 1994) reciprocally constitute the context on which fitness should be measured, it seems we should rather talk about the fit in its relational entirety, that is as a semiotic capacity.

The semiotic fitness, should ideally measure the semiotic competence or success of natural systems in managing the genotype-envirotype translation processes.
The optimization of semiotic fitness results in the continuing growth in the depth of interpretative patterns accessible to life.

Note. Semiotic fitness applies for the inhabitants active in niches and thus provides the interrelated activity/meaning measurment characteristic for spaces.


Semiosphere and affordances, talking with Wilma Clark

January 14, 2009

Yesterday evening I spent three hours with Wilma Clark from London to chat in Tartu University cafe about mutual research interests. Wilma happened to read my blog some time ago and while visiting Tartu she proposed to meet – another great example of how web-based contacts really work!

Wilma is currently in Tartu to write her PhD thesis. She is using Lotman’s semiosphere model to explain how technology changes learning spaces for teachers and learners. Wilma has recently translated in English Lotman’s book Culture and explosion which i referred earlier, it will appear soon. Her other translation is Lotman’s Semiosphere.

Wilma and her associates have in press quite interesting paper of school students’ preferences of technology use in Journal of Computer Assisted Learning (2009), 25, 56–69

Beyond Web 2.0: mapping the technology landscapes of young learners
W. Clark, K. Logan, R. Luckin, A. Mee & M. Oliver

In this paper they have used the boundary idea (similiar to Lotman’s semiosphere model) to analyze learning with technology in formal and informal settings.

From my own research perspective they used similar mapping technology as i have done, only at school level.
Secondly, in the questionnaire they have analyzed the tool use in activities using dimesionality: Can use, Can use, but are not allowed to use, Cannot use. Why this is interesting to me?
This can also be interpreted from the learning affordance aspect: we have often discussed with Mart Laanpere that affordances that some tool can be used for certain activities are same important as affordances (perception) that this tool is hindering (is not useful) for certain activity. So affordance can be described using the two-directional (Lickert?) scale (supportive and hindering).

Another interesting idea triggered from this paper: This perceptional feeling that something is common to certain user group in certain activities and hindering (not useful) or align in other activities enables to start using Lotmans semiosphere model together with affordance conception. Lotman plays in his model with the semiosphere in which always dual structure is created and perceived, and the border line between common to me(my community) and align to me(my community) is flexibly defined in the course of action. I think what concerns culture of the community that is related with similar community-specific activities, the affordances might serve as a useful term in defining this borderline.

It is a pity that in this paper the results of shifting borders between formal and informal learning tools (PLEs) are not presented visually keeping the semiosphere model in mind (or at least it is not so implicit).

From their report
Learners’ use of Web 2.0 technologies in and out of school in Key Stages 3 and 4 i found a good illustration to formal/informal borders (Figure 12).

Borderline between formal and informal space when using web 2.0 tools for learning

Borderline between formal and informal space when using web 2.0 tools for learning

What might be very interesting is not mapping the boundary for the community or class, but start seeing how the boundary is flexibly shifted in Personal Learning Environments (PLE) in formal and informal settings. I believe that the tasks and activities people do in PLE do not have much overlap in formal and informal settings in our classrooms, and practically the learners’ PLE components that exists in informal settings become align in formal settings from the teachers’ perception perspective. However, the students might feel tension and wish to use their PLE tools in formal settings.

We also briefly discussed with Wilma, is it good or bad if there is some overlap of learning space perception in school and outside the school, which enables translation in the dual parts of the semiosphere model – or alternatively, maybe total lack of overlap between perceived and expected affordances in formal and informal settings would create even better conditions for creation? To understand this idea Lotman’s words are the best:

Lotman wrote (in my free translation) in Culture and explosion:

Normal communication between people and normal communication between languages presumes the non-identity of the sender and the receiver. In this case it is normal that the language-space of the sender A and receiver B are partially intersected. Communication is impossible if A and B do not intersect, the total intersection (A and B are identical) changes communication meaningless. Permitted is, therefore, partial overlap of spaces, while at the same time two tendencies will be in action: while streaming towards mutual understanding, the overlapped area is tried to be increased, in order to raise the merit of the message, the difference between A and B must be increased. Therefore, to describe normal communication in languages, we must bring in the concept of tension, the contradiction between the certain forces between spaces A and B.
The overlapped space of A and B becomes their natural area of communication. At the same time the areas that do not overlap seem to be switched off the dialogue. Here we stumble to one more contraversity: communication at overlapped area is trivial. It occurrs that not the overlapped area is of high meaning for the dialogue, but the exchange of information between the areas of no overlap. We can assume that translation of non-translable becomes the carrier of information with high merits. In the area of overlap, between languages that are similar the translation is easy, between the different languages (e.g. poetry and music) it is difficult and creates ambiguent meanings. Not understanding between languages is same valuable as understanding.

The relationships between the translable and non-translable are so complex that they create possibilities for breakthrough to the space beyond the borders. This function is fulfilled by the explosions, that create windows to the space beyond the language borders.