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Technologies are intrinsically social. They reflect human values and affect human behaviour. The social dynamics of technology materialize through design features that shape how a technology functions and to what effect. The shaping effects of technology are represented in scholarly fields by the concept of “affordances.”
Affordances are the ways design features enable and constrain user engagement and social action. This has been a central construct for designers and technology theorists since foundational statements on the topic from JJ Gibson and Don Norman in the 1970s and 80s. With the rise of digitization and widespread automation, “affordance” has entered common parlance and resurged within academic discourse and debate.
Davis provides a conceptual update on affordance theory along with a cogent scaffold that shifts the orienting question from what technologies afford, to how technologies afford, for whom, and under what circumstances?
“How Artifacts Afford” introduces the mechanisms and conditions framework of affordances in which technologies request, demand, encourage, discourage, refuse, and allow social action, varying across subjects and circumstances. Underlying thesemechanisms and conditions framework is a sharp focus on the politics and power encoded in sociotechnical systems.
In this timely theoretical reboot, Davis brings clarity to the affordance concept, situates the concept within a broader history of technology studies, and demonstrates how the mechanisms and conditions framework can serve as a transferrable tool of inquiry, critique, and (re)design.
Jenny L. Davis is a sociologist at the Australian National University. She works at the intersection of social psychology and technology studies. She is the author of How Artifacts Afford: The Power and Politics of Everyday Things (MIT Press 2020). Jenny is Co-Director of the Role-Taking Project, Director of the Pause Project, Chief Investigator on the Humanising Machine Intelligence team, serves on the board for Theorizing the Web, co-edits the Cyborgology blog, and serves as Chair-Elect for the Communication, Information, Technologies and Media Sociology section of the American Sociological Association (CITAMS).