Monthly Archives: September 2011

Affordances and Vulnerabilities

Have you ever noticed how some people seem to be completely “owned” by a device, like a mobile phone for instance, while other people seem to be able to integrate that same device into their lives in a much healthier way? I have friends who constantly check their phones, even when I am trying to have a conversation with them, and other friends who carry a phone but are happy to ignore text messages and even calls when they are having in-person meetings. This also doesn’t seem to be strictly a product of age. Amongst my nieces, nephews, and students, I see the same phenomenon: some are seemingly addicted to their phones, while others are able to treat it as a useful tool that has an appropriate time and place.

In Sherry Turkle’s latest book, which I reviewed in an earlier post, she introduces a pair of concepts that I have found to be very useful in thinking about this phenomenon: technological affordances, and human vulnerabilities.

Book cover for Design of Everyday ThingsThe term ‘affordances’ actually comes from Donald Norman, the cognitive psychologist who wrote the classic book The Design of Everyday Things (a must-read for anyone involved in designing user interfaces). In that book, he defined affordances as “those fundamental properties that determine just how the thing could possibly be used” (9). Affordances give us clues as to how a device should be used: a flat metal plate on a door suggests pushing, while a vertical handle suggests pulling; a button suggests pushing, while a short rod sticking out a right angle suggests flipping.

The brilliance of Norman’s book is how he demonstrates these concepts on the completely mundane and often unnoticed things we use every day: doors, faucets, lights, stoves, teapots, etc. Once you read the book, you’ll never be able to look at these items in the same way again. You’ll also start to notice just how badly designed many of these things are. If a door needs a sign that says “push,” it’s a failure of design, not the users.

This same concept of affordances also works with more complicated devices. Just as the design of a door suggests a type of interaction, the design of a mobile phone (and its corresponding service) or a social networking site can also suggest one or more patterns of use. Designers “inscribe” these patterns into the physical artifacts, and systems behind them, through explicit design choices. Marketers then reinforce those by demonstrating particular patterns of use in their ads. Of course, users don’t have to follow these suggestions, and historical case studies are rife with examples of how consumers have adopted new technologies in ways that were contrary to those suggested by the manufacturer (for example, see the book How Users Matter: The Co-Construction of Users and Technology).

Turkle’s second and related concept is that of human vulnerabilities. Each one of us has particular needs, wants, or addictions that make us vulnerable in particular ways. For example, some people have deep seated insecurities that tend to make them vulnerable to anyone or anything that promises to make them feel more accepted and loved. Others struggle with an overwhelming need for interpersonal connection, and are thus vulnerable to anything that promises to satisfy that. Still others have a deep fear of chaos and are thus vulnerable to anything that allows them to exert control and order over their situation.

When the affordances of a device or system align well with a given person’s vulnerabilities, the results will often be unhealthy for that person. For example, someone with a high need for social interaction but a deep-seated fear of intimacy might find Facebook so alluring that it becomes almost addictive. A person with a fear of chaos and a high need for control will eagerly embrace a mobile smartphone and obsessively check email or the web.

The important point to note here is that this combination of affordances and vulnerabilities is personal and particular. There probably are some vulnerabilities that are truly universal to all humans, but most are not. Some people can walk into a casino, have a bit of fun gambling, and walk out without issue, while others will walk into that same casino and quickly fall into an addiction response. Similarly, some people can carry a mobile phone or use Facebook as helpful tools, while others fall into a pattern of use that enslaves them to the device or service. If affordances align with vulnerabilities, there’s a high likelihood that the relationship will be unhealthy, but if not, it may be perfectly fine.

I like these concepts because they offer a more nuanced way of investigating and critiquing new technologies. Too often we see shocking news articles about “on call” teens that imply this will be the fate of all teens who use a mobile phone. Or we hear a technological critic assert that “Facebook is making us shallow and narcissistic,” assuming that everyone is using it in the same way, and with the same results. These kind of universal statements don’t represent the particular and variable relationships that people have with these systems. They also don’t really help potential users (nor their parents) assess whether they will be able to adopt a new device or system in a healthy way or not.

In order to make that assessment, we need to uncover two things: the affordances (suggested, probable, and possible patterns of use) of the devices or systems in question; and our own particular vulnerabilities. The former is achieved by analyzing and deconstructing the design of the new device or system, and the latter is achieved only by reflection, introspection, and a large dose of self-knowledge and honesty. Both of these are hard to do, and the latter can often be painful, but if we truly desire a more healthy relationship with our technologies, we must endure.

From the Garden to the City (A Review)

From the Garden to the City

A few weeks ago, my friend and fellow blogger Rosie Perera recommended a book to me with a rather intriguing title: From the Garden to the City: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology by John Dyer. Let me just say at the outset that this is a great book, and any Christian interested in the topic of technology and culture should read it. As I read through it, I often found myself thinking “dang, this is good. I wish I had written it!” The book is certainly not perfect (what book ever is?), but it is the most articulate, balanced, and nuanced examination of technology written from a Christian perspective that I’ve read so far.

Dyer approaches the topic of technology not only as a practicing software developer, but also as a former youth pastor and seminary-trained theologian who has done quite a bit of reading in “media ecology,” a discipline that studies media as an element of a more complex sociotechnical “ecosystem.” These two sides of his personality allow him to have a much more balanced view of technology, one that can both deconstruct shortsighted critiques of the latest and most feared social media, and acknowledge the ways in which technology is rarely, if ever, neutral.

His stated purpose in the book is to “dismantle the concept of technology, examine it carefully, and then put it back together again” (17). While he does so, he reflects on the Biblical narrative, fitting technology into the four main movements of the Christian story: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. His hope is that this will help Christians not only to reflect more deeply on the nature of technology, but also to imagine ways in which the negative consequences of particular technologies might be “redeemed” by new creative uses.

Dyer describes a few examples of technological redemption, but the one that stuck with me the most was a story about his former pastor who was diagnosed with stage-four colon cancer. A member of the congregation gave the pastor a beeper, a device usually critiqued as intrusive and community-destroying, and told the other members to call the associated number whenever they prayed for the pastor. As the pastor waited to undergo surgery, and all throughout his recovery, the constantly buzzing beeper was a tangible reminder of the prayers his parishioners were offering up, as well as the care and concern they had for him as a person. This creative repurposing, Dyer argues, redeemed the beeper, transforming it “into something that mediated an entirely different set of values” (99).

In the more philosophical parts of the book, Dyer defines the word ‘technology’, and outlines the typical stances one finds in discussions of how technology and culture interact. He interprets the word ‘technology’ fairly broadly, noting its ancient connection with art and creativity, and offering up this concise definition: “the human activity of using tools to transform God’s creation for practical purposes” (65). He includes both physical artifacts and methods (techniques) in the term ‘tool’ but emphasizes that for something to be a tool, it must enable the transformation of creation. Strangely, he goes on to argue that art is not a tool since it exists for “its own sake” (66), but this overlooking of art’s often purposeful social influence seems strange given his earlier examination of the greek root téchnē.

In another philosophical chapter, Dyer briefly outlines the stances of technological determinism and instrumentalism. The former sees technology as a separate sphere that “impacts” culture and advances according to its own logic, while the latter sees technology as a neutral tool to be used by us to do either evil or good (or as the NHRA once said it on a bumpersticker: “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”). Dyer nicely shows the problems with both of these extreme positions, and guides the reader to a more balanced understanding of the ways in which we both shape our devices and are shaped by them in return.

Despite these philosophical sections, the book is written for a general reader. Dyer’s prose is clear and approachable, and he gently guides the reader through difficult to grasp concepts. This book would make an excellent choice for a book group interested in the subject, or pastors who want to present a more balanced and nuanced view of technology in their sermons. On the whole, I highly recommend it.

Emotional Telecommunications

I recently ran across a TED talk where a designer describes some prototypes he made that simulate various intimate, physical gestures—holding hands, blowing on the cheek or neck, even kissing—over a telecommunications link. Take a moment to watch this video:

Now, it’s obvious from the presentation that even the designer himself was a bit skeptical as to whether any of these was really a good idea, much less practical. Do you really want to be “kissed” by your mobile phone, even if it is just acting as a proxy for a loved one far away? And how would they keep that sponge wet in dry climates? I’m guessing the solution would involve trapping body sweat, which just makes it all the more distasteful!

Nevertheless, what intrigues me about these experiments is the way in which they show a “working out” of not only what the mobile phone might be good for, but also what it really is in its essence.

When the mobile phone was introduced, it was described as simply a wireless version of something we already knew and understood, and it was primarily targeted towards business use. But as we’ve seen over the last decade, the mobile phone has morphed into something beyond just a simple wireless telephone for business. With the introduction of each new feature—texting, cameras, media players, data connectivity, and general-purpose operating systems with installable applications—we have had to reevaluate what this device actually is, and what it is good for. The social meaning we ascribe to it has changed from “wireless business telephone” to “portable information communication device.”

These experiments take the process even farther, suggesting a new, even more general potential meaning for the mobile phone: “interpersonal proxy.” Perhaps the right way to think about the mobile phone is to realize that in essence it enables interpersonal relation at a distance. The form that it takes is obviously a pale substitute for face-to-face (or shall we say lips-to-lips?), physically-present interaction, but when that kind of interaction is not possible, it serves as the next best thing. Over time, the fidelity of the link will improve, delivering an experience somewhat closer to a physically-present interaction, but it will of course never be the same.

In some ways, this reminds of the classic 1983 film Brainstorm, which imagined the ability to record a person’s experience of an event or memory by capturing brainwaves and writing them to tape. The tape could later be replayed, allowing the same person or another to relive the experience with such visceral detail that it would seem to be really happening. The plot thickens when they discover that replaying the experience of someone having a heart attack actually causes the “viewer” to have a physical heart attack as well. As The Matrix would explicate many years later, “the mind makes it real.”

Experiments like this will no doubt attract the ire of cultural critics who will complain that emotional telecommunications will only further encourage people to prefer mediated, impersonal interaction. There is no doubt that some people do prefer the emotional safety that mediated communication affords (see Turkle’s Alone Together), but those who actually do empirical studies of new social media usage have found time and time again that most teens use social media as a supplement and not a substitute to physically-present relations (for example, see The Young and the Digital by S Craig Watkins). Just as my generation talked for hours on the telephone when we couldn’t meet face-to-face, the current generation uses social media, but that doesn’t mean they are using it as a complete substitute for in-person interaction.

So what do you think of emotional telecommunications? Would you like to be able to kiss your loved one through a telecommunications link when you had to be away from home? Or is that going to far?