Rethinking Affordance is a multi-tiered project that brings together creative practice and theoretical analysis to develop an arts-based account of »affordance« that is capable of encompassing algorithmic processes, objects and environments. This issue, which is paired with an exhibition and symposium at Akademie Schloss Solitude (as well as a forthcoming special issue of the journal Media Theory) documents preliminary research and reflection on the topic by several contributors.
Our entry provides a brief introduction to J.J. Gibson’s initial theorization of affordance, identifying both the political stakes of the topic as well as the critical shortcomings of early perspectives in relation to the algorithmic. It then offers a brief consideration of the key role that artists and designers have had in exploring and shaping the possible uses and functions attributed to new and emerging technologies.
»It is our contention that the (dis-)continuities between established discourses on affordance and the ways in which the concept is currently deployed are poorly understood, and require critical attention. Our aim is to re-examine and re-theorize ›affordance‹ with the hope of filling this gap in contemporary criticism.«
Theoretical considerations of the concept of »affordance« originated within the fields of perceptual and cognitive psychology. Beginning with J.J. Gibson, researchers have used the term to describe the »actionable properties« of physical objects or environments. In other words, an object’s affordances are assumed to describe its phenomenological qualities by projecting potential uses, delimiting possible actions, and signaling possible functions for the object. For example: the function and uses of a teapot (the titular face of this project) are assumed to be »embodied« in the object’s physical characteristics by design – its handle is the only spot that allows you to comfortably hold the teapot without burning your fingers; the wide opening on top suggests itself as the ideal way to fill it; the narrow neck and mouth are clearly ideal for controlled pouring of liquid. Often, these potential uses (and their limits!) will be graspable even to someone who hasn’t seen or used a teapot before. According to Gibson, while an object’s affordances are grounded within its material form, ultimately they are realized through processes of identification and implementation by users. As such, »affordance« is an inherently relational concept; for Gibson, »affordance« accounted for the »middle ground wherein the perceiver and the perceived actually meet«  and are in turn »co-articulated.« 
»…affordances are both ethically and politically charged […] regardless of whether or not they are intentionally designed or naturally occuring. […] both a set of stairs and a mountainside, featuring a specific height, gradient, and surface texture, might favor certain users while disadvantaging or barring others.«Ashley Scarlett & Martin Zeilinger
While the concept of affordance can be easily (and seemingly benignly) applied to the example of a teapot, we must recognize that since any object’s affordances affect its parameters and terms of relation and co-articulation, affordances are both ethically and politically charged. This is the case regardless of whether or not they are intentionally designed or naturally occuring. For example, both a set of stairs and a mountainside, featuring a specific height, gradient, and surface texture, might favor certain users while disadvantaging or barring others. What is at stake is not only the potential for a beautiful view upon reaching the top, but also, importantly, issues of access and identification. Who can safely and easily ascend/descend? How, and why? »Affordance,« then, does not identify neutral attributes, nor is it a neutral concept. This suggests a need for scrutiny. What are the politics and functions of »affordance,« assuming that it serves to dictate actionable uses? How have discourses surrounding the term evolved? Such questions have become all the more urgent within contemporary digital and algorithmic contexts.
Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, the concept of affordance rose in prominence as a more and more pressing line of inquiry in the domains of design and human-computer interaction. Within the context of design, the designer’s purpose was increasingly figured as a matter of both encoding the affordances of particular environments, objects, and interfaces, and making them explicit to a potential user. As such, the concept of affordance, accounting initially for physically robust artefacts and phenomena, was now increasingly invoked and applied to digital artefacts and environments, including those related to interaction design, software development, and science and information architecture. Within the corresponding context of Media Studies, the concept of affordance typically refers to the operational potential of devices and platforms, or to the emergent terms through which media might, indeed, be deemed »new.«
However, despite its common and increasingly digital application, the original theoretical apparatus out of which the concept of affordance emerged has yet to undergo »digitization« in theoretical terms. »Affordance« continues to operate in ways that largely ignore the specific grounds of contemporary computation; instead, the concept continues to reston the physicality, phenomenological accessibility, and perceived liveliness of objects. Importantly, each of these defining characteristics are fundamentally incompatible with what are increasingly referred to as the processual, »deep,« and unperceivable operations of algorithmic systems. Grounding »affordance« in the physical and phenomenological overlooks the growing sense that through the sensorial collection, aggregation and enactment of data, algorithmic systems are »learning« to recognize, respond to and reimagine virtual affordances that might well lie outside of the realm of human experience and intervention. Developments like these call into question the extent to which the concept of affordance in its original formulation is useful, relevant, and meaningful where the digital and the algorithmic are concerned. Ultimately, deploying the concept of affordance within these contexts without a reexamination of its digital and algorithmic specificity forecloses opportunities to consider the ethics and politics of affordance advanced by digital and algorithmic systems.
»Grounding ›affordance‹ in the physical and phenomenological overlooks the growing sense that through the sensorial collection, aggregation and enactment of data, algorithmic systems are ›learning‹ to recognize, respond to and reimagine virtual affordances that might well lie outside of the realm of human experience and intervention.«
It is our contention that the (dis-)continuities between established discourses on affordance and the ways in which the concept is currently deployed are poorly understood, and require critical attention. Our aim is to re-examine and re-theorize »affordance« with the hope of filling this gap in contemporary criticism. Given that the concept of »affordance« is by definition located at the intersection of design, perception, and implementation, our approach privileges critical and creative research grounded within practice.
A promising avenue for this line of inquiry exists within the intersecting fields of media art practice, media art history, and media theory. Artistic experimentation has always played a key role in shaping the scientific, industrial, commercial and rhetorical »affordances« of new and emerging technologies. From the first digital computers to the blockchain, artists have both delimited and expanded how we perceive, discursively conceptualize, resist, and reimagine the parameters of use linked to technological devices and systems. This resonates throughout the contributions to this Schloss-Post issue, as well as the work featured in the group exhibit, symposium and forthcoming publication. Each in turn begins to develop a critical account of »affordance« that might capture and contend with the digital and the algorithmic.
- Letich & Lisack 2009: 62
- Latour 1999