Making Affordances Real: Multiplicity, Distributed Agency, and Action Cascades in Sociomaterial Prefiguration
Christian Pentzold & Andreas Bischof

Usually, the alluring notion of ‘affordances’ comes with the idea that technologies make possible some activities while constraining others. As such, the notion is invoked in order to sidestep technological determinism on the one hand and social determinism on the other (Hutchby, 2001).

Our talk runs against this ‘received’ view on affordances (Gibson, 1979). It seeks to broaden and detail the richness of sociomaterial practices by drawing on the concept of prefigurations (Schatzki, 2002). Proceeding from scholarship in communication research, human-computing interaction, and social theory we take issue with three interrelated shortcomings in the present debate.

First, we challenge the simplification to think that (im-)material structuring collapses into the binary option of either constraint or possibility. Instead, we suggest to appreciate more the multitudinous ways in which the mesh of doings and things qualifies possible paths of action in such registers as easier, harder, or simpler, more complicated, ill-advised, disruptive, obligatory or proscribed (Rappert, 2003).

This perspective secondly demands us to think through what types of agency become associated with human and technical agents and what we take to define agency at all (Balsamo, 2011; Barad, 2003). Questioning why we produce the distinction between objects and humans and how we operate it becomes necessary for at least two reasons: Technologies are increasingly driven to be smart and have a capacity to produce an effect guided by judgment or assessment of evolving situations; we witness differences between designers’ powers to channel fields of action versus the more muted abilities of practitioners to construct their way out of them (Evans et al., 2017; Leonardi, 2012; Neff et al., 2012; Treem/Leonardi, 2012).

Third, this approach requires us to explain what we mean by saying that affordances are relational and emerge from a sociomaterial entanglement of matter and sociality. Moving away from the idea that affordances are (visually) perceived, we explain how they come into being in action cascades (Collins/Kusch, 1998). We use empirical examples from human-robot interaction (Alač, 2016; Bischof, 2017; Lindemann/Matsuzaki, 2014) and show that affordances of digital technology do not act out in a smooth planned process or through rational action alone. Human-machine interaction involves rather a considerable amount of negotiation and problematizing of human capabilities and machine capacities (Bloomfield et al., 2010; Nagy/Neff, 2015; MacVeigh-Schultz/Baym, 2015; Orlikowski, 2007; Rammert, 2008).

 

Christian Pentzold is an Associate Professor at the Centre for Media, Communication and Information Sciences, University of Bremen, Germany. Before that, he was a lecturer at the University of Technology Chemnitz, a visiting research Fellow at the Department of Culture, Media & Creative Industries, King’s College London, and a visiting doctoral student at the Oxford Internet Institute. He is broadly interested in the construction and appropriation of digital media and the roles, information and communication technologies play in modern society. His current projects, which are funded the German Research Foundation, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, and the Humboldt Foundation, study the public understanding and ideology of media innovations, the governance of peer production, and prospective data journalism. His work has been published in journals such as New Media & Society, Media, Culture & Society, Big Data & Society, Ethics and Information Technology, and the International Journal of Communication.