Posts Tagged ‘niche’


Interacting with the hybrid ecosystem

March 15, 2010

We can separate the following aspects of interacting with the hybrid ecosystem:

a) Defining ontodimensions and taking personal perspectives evokes meaningful places in ontospace and contributes to the formation of the community niche;

b) Social surveillance as a participatory monitoring, empowering and subjectivity building practice in hybrid ecosystem allows dynamic awareness of the state of the ontospace;

c) Social navigation in ontospace, as a behavior of considering actions and incorporating contents of some other individuals into our own, orientates enactment with the ontospace;

d) Social information retrieval such as semantic navigation or community browsing (actualizing some ontospace dimensions and using the found contents or people to guide their own perspectives) allows individuals to focus their meaning building and action into the community niche;

e) Stimergy and swarming refer to uncoordinated interaction of autonomous agents with the dynamic ontospace (b-d), and leaving feedback to this system (a) which at macro-level causes the emergence of global coherent intelligent behaviors and agglomeration of content.


Human cognition as a chance-seeking system: comments

March 9, 2010

Last week i finally had the chance to meet in person with Emanuele Bardone from University of Pavia, with whom i have been in contact in concerns of affordance and niche ideas for about a year when i discovered papers about eco-cognitive niche construction he wrote with Lorenzo Magnani.

Emanuele has recently defended his PhD with the thesis HUMAN COGNITION AS CHANCE-SEEKING SYSTEM.

Now i could ask the questions that concerned me the most in his theory – why they consider niche as an individual’s space rather than seeing it as an abstract space that exists and is defined by many persons of certain culture.
For me in this part their theory is a bit misleading, the concept eco-cognitive niche as a distributed knowledge representation phenomenon should not indicate the cognitive space of one person. If such distributed cognitive space exists, the relationship how personal cognitive space would be influenced by culturally emergent niche and vice versa needs still to be explained. Bardone tends to use the word smart environment or ambient intelligence instead of traditional (biological) niche conceptualizations.

I interpret niche as a community or species based phenomenon (Pata, 2009).

Ecologies are formed as a result of many individuals taking actions. Thus, people with various perspectives are simultaneously at present in these ecologies and influencing them. Many abstract subspaces can be formed within ecologies.
These groups of individuals have something in common in their identity. They form communities who inhabit the same abstract learning spaces in the ecology – niches.
The formation of learning spaces as niches for specific learning-related activities happens through the social definition of several factors that influence learning.
Hutchinson (1957) defined a niche as a region (n-dimensional hypervolume) in a multi-dimensional space of environmental factors that affect the welfare of a species.
She also made difference of fundamental and realized niche – the former exist as the complex of all necessary environmental characteristics for certain species, the latter is formed under the pressure of all the currently available environmental characteristics in the competitive conditions with other species.
Niches have been conceptualized as the environmental gradients with certain ecological amplitude, where the ecological optimum marks the gradient peaks where the organisms are most abundant. In the gradient concept structural ecosystem properties are comprehended as concentration gradients in space and time (Müller, 1998). Any niche gradient is a peak of the fitness landscape of one environmental characteristic (Wright, 1931), which can be visualized in two-dimensional space as a graph with certain skew and width, determining the ecological amplitude. The shape of the fitness graph for certain characteristic can be plotted through the abundance of certain specimen benefitting of this characteristic. All niche gradients are situated and establish a multi-dimensional hyper-room, which axes are different environmental parameters. Thus, any learning niche in social systems is determined as a set of characteristics that people perceive and actualize as useful for their activities and wellbeing individually or in groups. Each niche gradient defines one dimension of the space. The fundamental niche term applies for all the possibly usable software tools and services, artifacts and people, while the realized niches form under the constrained conditions of resource availability.

In the elaborated framework of ecological learning i support the idea that affordances are the perceived possibilities for both thinking and doing, what learners evoke and signify during their actual interaction with an artifact or tool and with each other. People determine the personal learning affordances when using their personal learning space (personal learning environment). Hence, the learning affordance descriptions involve the learning action verbs, people who are involved in action, and mediators of actions (various tools, services and artifacts). Any individual conceptualizes learning affordances personally, but the range of similar learning affordance conceptualizations may be clustered into more general affordance groups. These collaboratively accumulated affordance clusters may be interpreted and used as the abstract learning niche gradients. The affordances as niche gradients are socially developed. Using the affordance conception for defining learning space dimensions for the communities, we can bring the emergent ecological properties from the individual level to the new structural level that is niches in the ecologies.

Bardone uses niche term from the individual’s viewpoint and for the community level he has applied sometimes ambient intelligence or smart environment.

AmI can be considered a form of cognitive niche enrichment. Ambient Intelligence adds up a new layer to the traditional ways of disembodying the mind: Ambient Intelligence basically puts those sophisticated and smart devices – mimicking our mind – into our environments. In doing so even our familiar objects may embed high-level computing power [Cook & Das, 2007].

Collecting such an amount of data – and aggregating it – allows smart environments to provide us with feedbacks that exhibit a degree of adaptability that cannot be compared with any other traditional environment or cognitive niche.

HOWEVER, CAN we REALLY SAY THIS INDIVIDUAL DISTRIBUTED COGNITIVE SPACE IS A NICHE? (i am a bit worried of the concept use in individual terms).

AND, CAN we EXPLAIN HOW THE DISEMBODIED EXTERNALIZED PART OF individual COGNITIVE SPACE (part of your eco-cognitive niche) WOULD INTERACT WITH THAT WHAT I CALL NICHE (for communities/cultures) AND Brdone CALLs THE SMART ENVIRONMENT OR AMBIENT INTELLIGENCE? It is clear that for adaptability to culture each individual would need another adaptation, fitness to the COMMUNITY culture and its NICHE.


The other aspect that we discussed was his idea how human beings overcome their internal limitations by (1) disembodying thoughts and then (2) re-projecting internally that occurring outside to find new ways of thinking. He explained that the internal representation as a cognitive structure is kind of bounded, fixed (constraints) whereas the external representation allows to bring into internal representations new elements (chances). For me this explanation of fixed internal cognitive structures was not convincing. I tend to believe that in the moment of any action the internal and external representations could be considered as one distributed mediation system.
It seems that humans extend themselves in the moment of action integrating temporally some features that they perceive in the environment to their cognitive perception of their body. For example other people, some “tools”, some language concepts, some artifacts could be perceived as chances. This coupling possibility itself could be memorized and reused as personal or cultural preference the next time people plan actions. If that features would be available culturally and in the environment these may sharpen persons’ attention and trigger them to extend certain cognitive resources similar way as they had already used them as mediators. Maybe the time of our discussion was too limited to be aware of how this cognitive embodying-disembodying takes place in his theory.

The basic principles in Bardone’s theory are:

Human cognition is chance-seeking system that is developed within an evolutionary framework based on the notion of cognitive niche construction.

Humans are powerful eco-cognitive engineers.

Humans do not hold a complete internal representation of the environment; but they use the environment itself as a model insofar as they can immediately access it in terms of those action capabilities, which emerge in the interplay between humans and their environment.

Humans use the environment itself as a representation by manipulating and even creating it so as to find room for new cognitive chances not immediately available.

Humans turn environmental constraints into ecological chances when facing the challenges posed by the environment itself.

Decision making activities (and the way to obtain successful results) derive from the way individuals interact with the environment;
This interaction involves internal and external resources, and the way they are represented;
This process is dynamic, in the sense that cognitive capabilities depend on the exploitation of external resources and on their representation (time and way of modifying the interaction);
Interaction and dynamics imply uncertainty and complexity, in terms of difficulties deciphering between internal and external influences;
The “smart interplay” between the two is not limited to computational capabilities and, even if we narrowly focus on them, they are not only internal, but depend from the “smart interplay” itself;
Thus, our computational capabilities (or rationality la Simon) are not limited, since bounds depend on the “smart interplay” between internal and external resources and, moreover, the result of the decisionmaking process is embedded in the way the broad cognitive system employs, represents, and acknowledges external resources.

Humans constantly delegate cognitive functions to the environment: (Zhang, 1997; Gatti and Magnani, 2005; Knuuttila and Honkela, 2005) argue that the traditional notion of representation as a kind of abstract mental structure is misleading.

Internal representation does not mirror the entire representational task, because it is only a part of it.

External representations can be considered as “tacit procedures” (Polanyi, 1966) that emerge from, and are prompted by, the interaction (coupling) between humans and the environment.

If some cognitive performances can be viewed as the result of a smart interplay between humans and the environment, the representation of a problem is partly internal but it also depends on the smart interplay between the individual and the environment.

Human cognitive behavior consists in acting upon those anchors which we have secured a cognitive function to via cognitive niche construction. And those anchors are basically affordances.
Affordances can be related to the variable (degree of) abductivity of a configuration of signs.

Humans have at their disposal a standard or pre-wired endowment of affordances, but at the same time they can extend and modify the range of what can afford them through the development of appropriate cognitive abductive skills.

For making plasticity work is to turn environmental constraints into ecological chances.

We build and manipulate cognitive niches so as to unearth additional resources for behavior control. This activity of eco-cognitive engineering is basically what describes the most our idea of learning as an ecological task.

Basically, human beings overcome their internal limitations by (1) disembodying thoughts and then (2) re-projecting internally that occurring outside to find new ways of thinking.

Ecological approach aims at understanding cognitive systems in terms of their environmental situatedness (Clancey, 1997; Magnani, 2005). Within this framework, chances are that “information” which is not stored internally in memory or already available in an external reserve but that has to be “extracted” and then picked up upon occasion. This process of environmental selection (Odling-Smee, 1988) allows living creatures to build and shape the “ecological niches”.

Based on his thesis, Emanuele Bardone is currently writing the book:
Seeking Chances: From Biased Rationality to Distributed Cognition

External structures, which ultimately are meshed into our cognitive niches, exhibit what we may call a cognitive (semiotic) agency. That is, once externalized and secured to external supports, ideas, thoughts, and even intentions, cease to be what they originally meant to be. They acquire a public status; that means they go under a process of negotiation, which eventually leads to conventionalization and/or entrenchment [Tyl´en, 2007]. This can be viewed also as an hybridization process, which not only regards human beings and their surroundings, but also those objects and artefacts that enter the cognitive niche. Secondly, human externalizations become part of the so-called eco-cognitive inheritance and, therefore, being subjected to further modifications and exploitations insofar as they can be also the basis for the creation and development of additional eco-cognitive capabilities.

The neurological counterpart of this process is a process of brain re-configuration and re-organization – a rehearsed recapitulation – which allows our brain to disentangle itself from the perception-action cycle typical of the on-line thinking [Magnani, 2009].

We will discuss the case of Ambient Intelligence as a case of cognitive niche enrichment. We
will claim AmI can be considered a form of cognitive niche enrichment. Ambient Intelligence adds up a new layer to the traditional ways of disembodying the mind: Ambient Intelligence basically puts those sophisticated and smart devices – mimicking our mind – into our environments. In doing so even our familiar objects may embed high-level computing power. More generally, we argue that Ambient intelligence deals not only with reproducing some kinds of sophisticated human cognitive performances, but also with paying attention on an eco-cognitive dimension of computing – what is called context-aware computing [Cook & Das, 2007].

Collecting such an amount of data – and aggregating it – allows smart environments to provide us with feedbacks that exhibit a degree of adaptability that cannot be compared with any other traditional environment or cognitive niche.

Ambient Intelligence can be surely considered one of the most sophisticated ways humans have invented to distribute cognitive functions to external objects. In this case, the massive cognitive delegation contributes to a radical re-distribution of the cognitive load humans have subjected to. Basically, Ambient Intelligence improves people’s experience in their environments [Cook & Das, 2007].

Adapting affordances are those affordances that help the agent exploit latent environmental possibilities providing additional clues.

Simon’s statement can be fruitfully interpreted that way: humans overcame the limits of their bounded cognitive system by delegating cognitive functions to the environment. Suggestions, recommendations, and the like are all external resources that are socially available, and that indeed contribute to lessening various limitations.


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.


Traces and niches

October 6, 2008

Here is a conceptual scheme of how activity patterns are related to niches.
This is a continuation of describing how activity traces are emergent and useful in planning for individual learning paths with social media.


New about niche conceptions

September 6, 2008

Recently i have been intrigued by the niche conception and its application in the ecological learning framework common in Web 2.0 communities. Here are some papers of interest.


Macroevolution of ecosystem engineering, niche construction and diversity
Douglas H. Erwin
Trends in Ecology and Evolution Vol.23 No.6

Diversity begets diversity.

Douglas (2008) has assumed that in the macroevolutional perspective that reaches beyond species level, the niche construction, done by organisms as the feedback to their environment, and ecosystem engineering, where organisms influence the ecological success of other species, has increased over time, influencing the increase of biodiversity.

Ecosystem engineering can have positive impact on diversity by constructing habitats that can be occupied by other species, usually through increasing structural heterogeneity and patchiness and by direct impacts on resource availability.

Romer’s (1990) crucial insight was to realize that economic growth ultimately depends on the generation of non-rivalrous, non-excludable goods because these goods produce economic spillover effects (positive feedback) that percolate across the economy. These goods have a greater impact on growth than other types of innovation.

This economic insight indicates that the greatest impact of niche construction and ecosystem engineering is when they produce innovations that are analogous to non-rivalrous, non-excludable goods with long persistence (Douglas, 2008).

Author arises a number of interesting guestions that need to be answered:

How have these processes of niche generation and ecosystem engineering influenced community assembly and -recovery from mass extinctions?

Have niche generation and ecosystem engineering had a significant role in evolutionary innovations?

Are ecosystem engineers more resistant to extinction?

Has the absence of ecological inheritance inhibited recovery after biotic crises?


The niche construction paradigm in ecological time
John Vandermeer
e c o l o g i c a l m o d e l l i n g, 2 1 4 ( 2 0 0 8 ) 385–390

Niche construction: The organism has a profound effect on the very environment that generates the selective pressure to which the population of the organism responds with genetic change, thus effecting evolution.

The equilibrium theory states that there is a balance between the need for a certain population to maintain the constructed niche and the size of the population that can be sustained by that niche.

The necessary population is the number of individuals necessary to maintain a particular constructed niche.

The niche affects the organism and effectively dictates how many individuals can be sustained at a given level of constructed niche. This is the sustainable population.

The relationship between the necessary and sustainable populations defines a clear dynamic for the population and its niche.

A critical population density is necessary (along with a critical niche) for the population to be successful.

In a facultative constructive niche the organism survives even in the absence of niche construction, nevertheless benefits further from the construction.

In an obligate constructive niche the organism dies in the absence of construction.

Similarly, a facultative organism survives even in a non-constructive niche, but benefits further from the construction, whereas an obligate organism does not survive unless a constructed niche becomes available.

There also exists an evident case of niche construction that cannot really be included in the present formulation, that in which an individual manufactures some aspect of its own niche that has relatively no effect on other individuals of the population. Nests, burrows and webs, for example, are clearly examples of constructed environments, but they do not translate into population-level density dependent effects and are more akin to other individual traits such as skin color, toxicity or flight ability.

Furthermore, while niches are constructed by organisms, they are also destructed by organisms.


Revisiting Interpersonal Media Competition
The Gratification Niches of Instant Messaging, E-Mail, and the Telephone
Artemio Ramirez Jr.
John Dimmick
John Feaster
Shu-Fang Lin

Communication Research
Volume 35 Number 4
August 2008 529-547

At its most general, the theory of niche explains how media compete and coexist in limited resource environments (Dimmick, 2003).

Niche is the position of a medium in the multidimensional resource space of the environment.

The niche of a medium is derived from its pattern of resource use, represents its strategy for survival and growth, and ultimately determines its position in a multidimensional resource space.

Gratification opportunities are properties of a medium that allow users to overcome time and space constraints and, in effect, amplify or attenuate the ability to derive satisfaction from a medium.

The gratification niche of a medium is defined within a domain of gratification and gratification opportunity measures common to a set of media.

The gratification niche of a medium can be defined by its breadth on the gratification and gratification opportunities dimensions, the degree of overlap with other media, and its superiority in satisfying needs over other media within the same domain.

Three characteristics are central to understanding a medium’s niche:

1. Niche breadth, or the degree to which a medium satisfies a relatively broad or relatively narrow spectrum of media-related needs. Niche breadth can be interpreted as relative specialism or relative generalism. Specialists gratify a relatively narrow set of needs, and generalists satisfy a broader spectrum.

2. Niche overlap, or the extent to which media are perceived as similar, indicated by the distance between their gratification niches. Put differently, niche overlap is an index of the substitutability or complementarity of two media. High overlap indicates that media are substitutes or serve the same needs, whereas lower overlap indicates that different needs are being served. Thus, low overlap points toward the complementarity of the media, whereas high overlap indicates strong similarity or competition.

3. Competitive superiority, or the extent to which one or the other of a pair of media provide greater gratification. Indices of superiority for gratification measures are defined as arithmetic means, and differences between two means on a dimension can be tested for significance using a t test for correlated groups.

The complete replacement of one medium by another is termed competitive exclusion, and partial replacement is termed competitive displacement.

The mathematical measures of niche breadth, overlap, and superiority were developed by Dimmick (1993; see Dimmick, 2003, for computational formulas) as interval equivalents of the bioecological measures that are appropriate for nominal scales.

Dimmick,J. (2003). Media competition and coexistence:The theory of the niche. Mahwah, NJ:Lawrence Erlbaum.


A general framework for the statistical exploration of the ecological niche
Clement Calenge
Mathieu Basille
Journal of Theoretical Biology 252 (2008) 674– 685

The graphical exploration of the relationships between a species and its environment may rely on the formal concept of ecological niche (Hutchinson, 1957). Each environmental variable can define a dimension of a multidimensional space, namely the ecological space. In that space, the distribution of the species occurrences represents the niche, which can be compared to the environment defined as available to the species (e.g., pixels of a raster map). This concept allows both a graphical and a quantitative exploratory analysis, in order to identify the directions in the ecological space where the distribution of the species is most different from the distribution of points describing the environment available to the species.
However, the present ‘lack of effective tools for exploring, analysing, and visualizing ecological niches in many-dimensional environmental space’ (Soberon and Peterson, 2005) may render this task difficult. The Ecological-niche factor analysis (ENFA, Hirzel et al., 2002) and the Mahalanobis distances factor analysis (MADIFA, Calenge et al., 2008) are two such methods.


The neuroscience of primate intellectual evolution: natural selection and passive and intentional niche construction
Atsushi Iriki, and Osamu Sakura
Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B (2008) 363, 2229–2241

Iriki and Sakurai (2008) propose a theory of intentional niche construction as an extension of natural selection in order to reveal the evolutionary mechanisms that forged the uniquely intelligent human brain.

Tool use sets up mutual interaction between the organisms and their environments. Tools become embedded cultural traces that are used to modify the environment in which subsequent generations develop and learn. This constructed environment puts selection pressure on the species, favouring individuals with phenotypes (whether morphological features or neural circuitry) that match the usages of such traces.

People have long commented that as one becomes deft with a tool, introspectively it begins to feel as though the tool has been incorporated into one’s body image as an extended hand or forearm.

We were studying intraparietal bimodal neurons that respond both to tactile stimulation on the hand (a neuron’s tactile receptive field) and to visual stimuli presented in the same spatial vicinity as the tactile receptive field (the same neuron’s visual receptive field). These visual receptive fields were not confined to any region of the retina, but followed the hand around everywhere it was moved in the three-dimensional space.

We interpreted these neuronal response proper ties as coding the image of the hand in space ( Iriki et al. 1996; Maravita & Iriki 2004). Our next observation was surprising. When our rake-trained monkeys wielded the rake in order to retrieve food, these same neurons’ visual receptive fields extended outwards along the axis of the tool (ac) to include the rake’s head. In other words, it appeared that either the rake was being assimilated into the image of the hand or, alternatively, the image of the hand was extending to incorporate the tool.
Whenever a monkey was not regarding the rake as a tool and just held it passively as an external object (ad), the visual receptive field withdrew from the rake head and was again limited to the space around the hand.

If external objects can be reconceived as belonging to the body, it may be inevitable that the converse reconceptualization, i.e. the subject can now objectify its body parts as equivalent to external tools, becomes likewise apparent.

Thus, tool use may lead to the ability to disembody the sense of self from the literal flesh-and-blood boundaries of one’s skin.

It has been repeatedly emphasized that since changes in behaviour precede morphological changes, behaviour must be viewed as one of the prime ‘engines’ of the evolutionary process (see ar ticles in Plotokin (1988) for review), rather than simply the end product of it. Apart from some classical philosophical arguments, this kind of argument originated with Darwin (1881) himself, and has been recently re-evaluated as the ‘niche construction theory’ (Odling-Smee et al. 2003).

In all non-human species, the process of organism–environment interaction proceeds through a finite number of cycles, which eventually reaches an equilibrium point and then stops. Such interaction is purely passive, a ratchet process prefigured by the combined characteristics of the subject and the environment to which it must adapt. Thus, we can call this process passive niche construction.

When organisms become aware of ‘subjective self ’, gained ability to explicitly imitate (Iriki 2006) or intentionally plan for the future, an additional factor was added on top of a pre-existing stable mode of environment, a novel mode of evolutionary circulation was initiated by succession of sequential niche construction processes.

Taking into consideration the similarities, equivalences and differences between enhanced monkey and modern human intellectual brain functions, we proposed a novel evolutionary mechanism, intentional niche construction, which we think is necessary, in addition to the mechanisms of Darwinian natural selection and passive niche construction, conceptually proposed by Darwin (1881) and later formalized by Odling-Smee et al. (2003), to account for the full course of human intellectual evolution.

Once goal-directed intentional niche construction was introduced into the evolutionary process, biological and cultural processes became intertwined to an unprecedented degree.

Humanity faces the unprecedented situation in which numerous minds possess external thinking devices linked simultaneously via the Internet. In such a situation, might the will of individual ‘subjects’ become separate from their bodies and act mutually, through the interdependent functioning of the Internet, with the shards of a thousand selves forming the community of an imaginary society? In such an event, perhaps the advanced, virtual concept of ‘multi-selves’ will emerge, evolving through the neuro-biological mechanisms depicted here as they carry us into the future.


Return of the niche
Mathew A. Leibold
NATURE Vol 454, 3 July 2008

Traditional explanations for the local co-existence of species hold that the balance of nature is delicately related to differences in how species interact with their local environments (their ‘niches’), with populations of each species being primarily regulated by distinct environmental factors. Such niche partitioning results in stable frequency dependence, in which each species increases relative to others when it is rare, and decreases when it is common.

This venerable view has been confronted with the contention, arising from recent modelling work, that stochastic demography and dispersal are more important, and that they allow the widespread coexistence of species with identical niches. This ‘neutral theory’ has provided possible explanations for the occurrence of highly diverse communities that challenge the traditional view.


How do learning affordances define niches?

May 22, 2008

A work in progress for the affordance paper.


An affordance term is used for signifying the intermediate constructs that emerge dynamically in the activities what people perform with certain objectives while using the environment as a mediator for these activities. Affordances indicate the certain dimension of the environment that learners actualize as the mediator of specific activities. Affordances also constrain the certain range of possible activities that would be considered in this environment. Therefore affordance definitions usually contain activity verbs, actors and object properties from the environment. The two components – the emerging activity objectives, and the certain aspects in the environment as the mediators of actions simultaneously influence, which affordances will be actualized.

One of the hypotheses is that the emergence of affordances may at some cases be triggered more by the environement side, and at other cases more by the activity planning side.

At an environment side the environment is the niche that forms through the uncoordinated action of many individuals. At action side, each individual performs coordinated actions and influences the niche. These both sides of the ecosystem are interrelated, the individual ‘particle’ level state creates feedback to the environment that in large scale causes the emergence of another ‘whole’ state of the niche. The whole state serves as the activity system, constraining the actions for each individual.

The learner’s choice of affordances at their activity- and landscape descriptions enables to investigate how some social media tools are perceived and actualized as learning mediators more at particle level, while others are perceived as obtaining the learning affordances at the whole activity system level.

The questions in interest were:
1. Which are the learning affordances that learners evoke when using certain social media tools?
2. Do learners perceive the overlapping learning affordances when using different social media tools?
3. Does the description type (activity description or learning landscape description) actualize different sets of learning affordances?
4. Do learners evoke different learning affordances with individual and collaborative learning activity and learning landscape descriptions?


For the data analysis the visual and narrative, data collected from the master level students participating at the course ‘Self-directed learning with web 2.0 tools‘, was used. The students composed personal learning environments from web 2.0 tools and described these, composing learning landscape schemes. They also draw activity patterns to describe activities at their personal learning landscapes. Several of the landscape and activity pattern descriptions were composed for collaborative groups. Each figure was accompanied by narrative descriptions mentioning several learning affordances in relation with the tools the student(s) used for activities and for constructing distributed learning landscapes.

The analysis of 63 activity- and learning landscape descriptions was conducted. From the figures and from the narratives the learning affordances were collected and categorised. The categorization scheme separated each affordance according to its belonging to: a) activity scheme or learning landscape scheme, and b) individual or collaborative learning activity. The relationship of the learning affordance with the tool(s) was categorised using binary system. The main tool categories were: blog, wiki, chat tools (MSN, Skype, Gabbly), email, search engines, RSS aggregator, social bookmarking tools, forums, co-writing tools (eg. zoho or google documents), co-drawing tools (eg. Vyew, Gliffy), and social repositories Flickr and Youtube. These were selected because these tools were mostly in use by the students during the course and they also appeared at their schemes frequently.

Analytically, ANOVA , Cross tabulation and Chi square anlaysis were used as primary methods to show if there was a difference in the distribution of learning affordances in different settings: wholistic and collaborative emergence level, and particular and individual emergence level.

These data reflect specifically the learning affordance perception of the students of the course (beginner users of web 2.0 tools), and cannot be broadened to the perception of learning affordances of the active web 2.0 users in various settings.

The learning affordances were categorized into specific types representing similar affordances: assembling, managing, creating, reading, presenting, changing and adding, collaborating and communicating, sharing, exchanging, searching, filtering and mashing, collecting, storing, tagging, reflecting and argumenting, monitoring, giving tasks and supporting, asking and giving-getting feedback, and evaluating. These types were taken from the main verbs the students tended to use in their learning affordances.

Factor analysis was used to indicate how certain learning affordance categories are related with certain tools. Cross tabulation shows the overlap of some tools on the basis of learning affordances.

The frequency of learning affordance categories was found for each tool both in case of activity and landscape descriptions. Each learning affordance eg. searching was considered as a variable defining the niche. Niches have been defined as the environmental gradients with certain ecological amplitude, where the ecological optimum marks the gradient peaks where the organisms are most abundant. In all activity/landscape descriptions the optimum for certain learning affordance category was calculated dividing the frequency of this affordance per certain tool to the total frequency of certain learning affordance category for all tools.


Factor analysis related certain tool types with certain learning affordance categories.

Factor analysis indicated that learners relate certain affordances with certain tools. 13 factors, describing 60 % of the system, were identified:

1. searching with search engine
2. collecting and sharing in social repositories (flickr, youtube)
3. collaborating, communicating and exchanging with email and chat
4. collecting, tagging and storing with social bookmarking tool
5. finding, filtering and mashing and monitoring with aggregator
6. collaborating and communicating with collaborative publishing tools (wiki, zoho and google documents, View and forums)
7. presenting, reflecting and monitoring with co-drawing tools (Vyew, Gliffy)
8. giving tasks, asking and supporting with blog
9. changing, adding, collaborating and communicating and sharing with co-drawing tools (View, Gliffy)
10. creating, assembling and reflecting with co-drawing tools (View, Gliffy)
11. managing, collecting and monitoring with blog
12. assembling and evaluating with blog
13. reading and reflecting with forum and blog

Learners perceived that several tools have overlapping affordances and can be used simultaneously or together when solving certain pedagogical aims.

The findings of ANOVA analysis (see Table 1) indicate that learners perceived the affordances differently if they focused on the activity side or if they focused on the learning landscape (tool) side when describing self-directed and collaborative learning. When learners described learning landscapes they actualized more learning affordances of social bookmarking and co-drawing tools than they did at their activity descriptions. The learning affordances related to blog, wiki, and forum usage were more frequently mentioned in case of activity descriptions compared to learning landscapes.

There was no significant difference between affordance distribution in case of individual and collaborative diagrams of activities and learning landscapes using ANOVA analysis. The ANOVA analysis indicated that in the activities with social media, the learners did not make significant differences between how they actualized affordances when learning individually with the teacher, and when participating in the group learning situations.

The cross tabulation and Chi square analysis of the distribution of the learning affordances related to activity and landscape descriptions in case of individual and group learning situations (see Table 2) demonstrated that some tendencies, indicating the different frequency of affordances similarly like in ANOVA analysis (see Table 1), were present both at individual and collaborative descriptions. For example both in individual and collaborative learning cases the learning affordances using aggregator and co-drawing tools were mentioned more frequently in case of landscapes compared with activity descriptions.

The difference between individual and collaborative distribution of affordances in landscape and activity descriptions was found in case of using social bookmarks and search engines. It was found that there were significantly more than expected affordances related to using social bookmarking tools at collaborative landscapes, and the number of affordances related to using search engines was larger at individual activity descriptions. Significantly more learning affordances were related to individual activity descriptions and blog and wiki usage. The last finding seems to be related to the activities of the course and maybe is not so general. The students of the course did individual assignments in blogs, commented each other’s blogs and worked collaboratively with wiki tool.

The cross tabulation and Chi square analysis of the distribution of the learning affordances related to individual and group learning situations in case of landscape and activity descriptions (see Table 3) indicated that search engine usage is clearly related with individual activity descriptions, while chat and aggregator-related learning affordances have been used at collaborative landscapes.

The same tendency was not apparent in case of the descriptions of collaborative learning. When describing learning affordances of collaborative landscapes the social bookmarking tool was noted significantly more than expected compared with collaborative activities.

The following figures 1 and 2 demonstrate two different niche landscapes.

Figure 1. The niche landscape of learning affordance types presented at activity descriptions

Figure 2. The niche landscape of learning affordance types presented at learning landscape descriptions

Figures 3 and 4 present learning affordance niches for the activity and landscape descriptions

Figure 3. Niche landscape from activity descriptions.

Figure 4. Niche landscape from learning landscape descriptions.

The following example presents the clear qualitative difference of learning affordances of social bookmarking tool in learning landscape and activity descriptions. The former indicates recognized new social activities and related affordances, the latter is more old-fashioned and individual centred.

Learning affordances from landscape descriptions related with social bookmarks

Advancing the software
Adding resources to the landscape
Increasing affordances
Student can change and add materials

Collecting and storing
Finding information
Searching information
Searching information
Searching information
Adding links
Important bookmarks can be collected
Links to the learning materials
Adding bookmarks
Adding necessary information
Saving information
Saving information
Collecting private bookmarks
Collecting artifacts

Tagging artifacts
Social tagging of presentations
Social tagging of feeds
Community based tagging
Social tagging
Social tagging
Social tagging of videos
Social tagging of feed channels
Adding tags for remembering important links

Filtering information
Access through tags
Receiving information for learning from different sources
Information feed to demonstrate presentations
sorting tools for oneself
searching tools with tags
receiving information
Showing tagged information feeds

tagged bookmarks can be pulled together
information feeds from links go automatically to aggregator
Pulling information feeds

Using shared resources
Sharing artifacts
Sharing with peer students
Public usage of bookmarks
Sharing presentations
Sharing information tag-based
sharing tags and impressions
sharing bookmarks

Asynchronous learning
synchronous learning
simultaneous work with team members
Working jointly
communication with team members
viewing bookmarks collaboratively for learning

system administration and content generation

Learning affordances related with social bookmarking tools at activity patterns

Collecting and storing
searching and collecting information collecting
Searching ideas from internet
Searching images from Internet
collecting information feeds
collecting links
adding links
adding links
saving the bookmarks of materials
saving data
saving the results
Saving information
Saving information
Saving materials
Saving information and artifacts

Sharing data
Sharing information with interested counterparts
sharing materials
exchanging materials
Taking into use the artifacts of shared learning activity
Sharing information with learners

Student gets familiar with tags
Student searches bookmarks with tags
adding tags to texts
Tagging important information
Tagging important posts
Tagging information
saving bookmarks with tags
choosing bookmarks with searching tags
Marking important information obtained from blogs
Connecting information data and artifacts

Individual assignments
Student starts solving the task
Reading written information
Student gets the answer
Students communicates with peer learners and finds new information
tutor gets overview of the study topics


These results suggest that some old tools (search engines) and new social tools (eg. blog, wiki) are perceived more as meditors for individual actions, while other social tools eg. aggregators and social bookmarking tools seem to be perceived more as collaborative scenes for ‘produsage’.

Final words

In general these results seem to be supporting my initial hypothesis that the perception of learning affordances of different social media tools is not happening with the same mechanism if we plan activities and if we think where we conduct these activities. These results are even more notable because students’ task was to present in parallel their learning landscape and an activity pattern at the same learning landscape.

This rises another question, whether the niches in web 2.0 environments arise with different affordance perception mechanisms (basically, are there two ends of one dimension?) – some because of particle level affordance perception that is related more to highlighting personal actions, and another due to highlighting the collaborative broad ‘produsage’ scene perception.