Commonist (Media) Design? — Or, More Solidarity with Machinic Affordances!

In our over-mediated era, when media are recursively mediated in other media it seems strange, that in the discourses around the term affordance the underlying concept of perception was probably never put into question. Most recent research in fields such as communication research frame affordance as a concept operating between environmental and individual aspects of objects or agents, and as the relationship between these individual entities and their perceptions of environments. Furthermore in these contexts affordance is “neither the object nor a feature of the object" (Evans et. al 2017, 39), but something enfolding in-between. These are indeed useful definitions. However, while in the 1970s, when James J. Gibson coined the concept affordance, it is unquestionably a different situation today. In our age of total interconnectedness human-based perceptual environments of our technological artifacts are interwoven with imperceivable media technological environments, sensor networks, algorithmic networks, protocols, smartness etc. Furthermore, the imperceptibility of such media infrastructures are often designed on purpose. The German media scholar Friedrich Kittler called this situation “protected mode" (Kittler 1997). How could we liberate these hidden affordance of digital agencies and share this new practices as part of a commonist (Shantz 2013) medium/media design (Easterling 2018) practice?

Around the same time as Don Norman adapted the concept of affordance into the field of human-computer-interaction and later on into the field of “design”, Friedrich Kittler wrote the now famous argument that media govern, determine and affect our situation meaning that media technologies influence our perception and the way one think about the world (Kittler 1986). This gains importance especially, when we – you and me – try or want to understand and experience the affordance of objects and agents, we can not perceive directly as mentioned already above. In order to fully understand the affordance of an algorithm for example one would need to connect to its hidden outlets in its code, generate previously unintended data-streams, which we then can visualize and sonify. Difference between visual and aural perception, our cultural and personal histories such as our education additionally influence how the affordance of such an algorithm enfolds.  

Finally, as claimed in the subtitle of this contribution we need more solidarity (Morton 2017) with the affordances of the machinic agents we are living with. This means not merely an intrusion into their structures, software, hardware or in-between, as mentioned earlier, but also an opening of ourselves. We need become more aware about our porosity. The affordance of an algorithm or digital object with another algorithmized entity is a totally different one compared with the affordance of the same algorithm enfolding in the presence of a human. How can we even so learn about and care for a sort of increased sensibility for such machinic affordances without falling into the trap of the neo-liberalist greed for more? As we accept that our media-techno-eco-systems are expanding in all scales of our lives, we need also to begin conceptualizing a complex, multidimensional eco-system of their affordances. In the proposed contribution, these aspects will be discussed in more detail and hopefully more concretely along some real-world examples.


Shintaro Miyazaki is a Berlin-born Swiss-Japanese media scholar who pursues practice-oriented research projects in experimental (media) design. He has been a Senior Researcher with the Institute of Experimental Design and Media Cultures at the Academy of Art and Design FHNW in Basel Switzerland since 2014. Shintaro obtained a PhD in media theory at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin in 2012 supervised by Wolfgang Ernst. His interests oscillate between German media theory, experimental (media) design research, anarchism, cybernetics, commoning, machinic ecosystems and the manifold meanings and practices of (computer) modelling. Shintaro was a fellow at the Akademie Schloss Solitude in 2011/2012.