Open Affordances Panel: Transcript

This past Friday, December 10, 2004, I hosted a very interesting online panel discussion with Stephen Downes, Ross Mayfield and Ziauddin Sardar (see panel description).

Unfortunately, there was a problem with the audio archiving, and we ended up with a very distracting echo which makes it almost impossible to follow the dialogue. So, instead, I decided to transcribe the discussion–all 90 minutes of it (or almost)! Enjoy.

Note: If you attended the panel and would like to make any corrections to my transcript, you may do so over at Ross’ wiki page for the event. My apologies to those who were looking forward to the audio.

This is not a verbatim transcript.

[Welcome, introductions, etc.]

Ulises Mejias: Let me try to explain what I mean by the use of the word ‘affordance’ in the title of this panel. Some of you might recognize a reference to the work of psychologist J.J. Gibson, or the work of Donald Norman. I would like to give you a definition from a book by Paul Dourish, titled Where the action is. He defines affordance as “a property of the environment that affords action to appropriately equipped organisms.” Most of us are introduced to this concept by given the example of a doorknob. A doorknob allows people to interact with it in particular ways, but not others (I can grab the doorknob, twist it to open the door, etc.). That what we refer to as a technology’s affordances.

However, what is interesting about the definition I just gave is that affordances are presented NOT as properties of the technology, but as properties of the environment. I think this is a distinction that is often lost in our arguments about technologies.

By shifting the discourse away from the technology, we are forced to recognize that the same technology can make affordable different actions, depending on the environment and the type of actors that are involved.

As Paul Dourish puts it, an affordance is a 3-way relationship between the environment, the actor, and the activity. A change in one of these elements results in a different experience. Or to paraphrase Heracitus, who said : “You cannot step twice into the same river,” I would say that you can’t use the same technology twice.

Which brings us to my use of the word Open in the title of this panel. I am using it to suggests that affordances are contextually defined, open to the influence of people and situations. But this is a more complex process than it appears. Yes, affordances are open. As we have seen, they are open to differences in environments, actors and activities. But what are the limits of this openness? Isn’t there something in the technology that determines by and large which environments it can be deployed in, what actors can interact with it, and what actions are supported? As I asked in the description of the panel: How far can we change a tool before the tool starts to change us?

These questions are becoming increasingly important in our age. Some of us are looking at the internet as a tool with great potential for changing the world, but we haven’t figured out yet exactly how competing interests will work themselves out through these open affordances. It is in an effort to begin to untangle these issues that I have invited today’s guests. In order to limit the focus of the discussion, I want to explore what they think about the open affordances of social, educative and democratic environments in which the internet is being used. In other words: what kinds of affordances are available on systems where the internet is being used for interacting with one another, acquiring knowledge, or exercising our rights as citizens in a democracy.

Let’s start by talking about democratic affordances. How are online changing notions of civic participation? Is this participation more or less effective than before?

Ross Mayfield: Whether it’s effective is a good question given the results of the past election. With technologies such as blogs and wikis, it’s very easy for groups with similar views to form groups, at a low cost. This is particularly important for under-represented constituencies. For these groups it has been difficult to find people who share similar views, and also the ability to form a group and take action. We don’t know how much that’s going to change the political landscape, when you have under-represented views being able to gain traction through simply amplifying their voices, or activists groups being able to apply political pressure.

Ziauddin Sardar: I think we are seeing increased participation in Europe and America, but not in what we call the developing countries. What concerns me is that this kind of participation is introducing the idea of chaotic behavior within democracy. I can explain this best by using an example. Two years ago there was a strike of truckers against high gas prices in Britain. They were organized as a network, using the net to communicate. There was lots of instant feedback. In 10 days a small group of people paralyzed the petrol companies. People panicked. If the government had not intervened, the economy would have collapsed. This is a new dimension of social behavior: a situation develops normally but escalates very rapidly because of the instant feedback that technologies affords.

UM: Can open source tools in particular increase civic participation in the Third World?

Stephen Downes: Yes, open source and commercial tools can increase participation. But I sense in the two previous commentaries the idea that it is the participation of under-represented minority groups that will be increased. And it seems to me that if these affordances accrue to the minorities, they will also accrue to the majority; if they accrue to those who are disempowered, they will more so accrue to those that are empowered (and in power) [gives example of BzzAgents and Blogs For God]. I don’t think there is automatically a shift in power just because of these open affordances. I think there’s going to be a case where, if there is a change in power, it will actually favor the empowered.

ZS: I think it is important to keep in mind that most people are not motivated to act politically. Minorities are activated to act politically because they have a grievance. Therefore, as far as I am concerned, the shift in power has to be towards those people who are more politically active.

SD: What about economic motivation, what about faith-based motivation? There are many types of motivation.

UM: Is it possible that self-interest can be a motivation, in the sense that–like we used to say–the personal is political, and now with the internet it’s very easy to broadcast the personal. Is there a sense in which that is also political, and how does that impact the public sphere?

ZS: I think this is very important. In fact, almost every personal thing is now becoming political. The internet is being used as a tool to turn it into something political. My other worry is that difference is becoming a fetish, thanks to the internet. Difference for the sake of difference. If you have a particular desire, you can turn it into a community very easily, which you couldn’t do as an individual. Thus, vast numbers of fetishes are being turned into communities on the internet. I think what is going to happen is that everybody with the slightest amount of difference is going to try to turn that difference into some sort of community. So while the internet is bringing people together, it is also fragmenting society, and making difference for the sake of difference a sort of fetish itself.

UM: So what new meaning is the internet giving to the term ‘diversity’?

RM: I think Stephen raised a good question. It’s too early to tell if the internet is going to empower minorities or support existing power structures. But it is opening up possibilities for small countries. A good example is localization, such as the localization of Open Office, an open source alternative to Microsoft Office, in Rwanda. Otherwise you could see the lack of localization as, in effect, a market failure. Both in terms of code, people coding in open source (vertical information), and also in terms of content and the expression of ideas, as you see with blogs and wikis (horizontal information), this is driven by the same common space peer production. So there is something new at a very basic level of empowerment and participation, and this could have large unintended consequences.

SD: I think the dominant feature of the open source and open content movement is that it is small. So far, they have not really touched the existing power structure. I am more interested in what happens when these things begin to touch existing power structures. The introduction to this session talked about the master’s tools not dismantling the master’s house. The internet remains the master’s house. The technology, the tools, remain the master’s tools. If we look at what’s coming down the pipe (trusted computing, DRM, federated identity), these are mechanism that will limit in a significant way just exactly the effect of what open source and open content can be. So I think we observed the point that once the openness begins to be pushed too far, the master is going to push back.

UM: Usually when I quote the statement from Audrey Lorde, that the master’s tools won’t bring down the master’s house, I also quote Ani DiFranco who says every tool is a weapon if you hold it right. So I agree with the points that are being made, but I think that there is room–yes, within limits–to use these tools to dismantle the master’s house. I wonder if we can talk about social software. It used to be that the master, so to speak, would design a particular technology, and they would not only design the artifact, but they would also design the interaction, how people were supposed to use that particular tool. Now, with social software, we are seeing more and more that people can create the tools, but how they end up being used is beyond their control. So obviously the limits still remain, of what the technology allows you to do, but there is also this new element of a tool being appropriated for unintended purposes.

ZS: I think these unintended uses are happening away from the West. I’ll give you an example. I think the most profound impact of the internet is going to be on Islam. Up to now, the tools for education and the tools for interpretation have been in the hands of a select group of scholars. And these scholars specify certain criteria that have to be fulfilled before you qualify to interpret the sacred text. Now what is happening is that with the internet, an individual can empower himself or herself very quickly and argue and defend his or her interpretation of religious concepts. What that means is that power is being dissipated widely, and that will have important consequences for Muslim societies. It means not only that religious scholars will lose their power, but it also means that we are starting to see new interpretations, which then become communities of interpretation, and so on, and we can have an opening of Islam which hasn’t happened for hundreds of years.

UM: Perhaps that is one reason why authoritative states, such as Saudi Arabia, are keeping such tight control on how the internet is used.

SD: Of course my first reaction is to think that as soon as the power of the clerics is eroded, the state will clamp down. But that’s just a flippant, off-hand remark. I think the deeper, more important point here is that things change not specifically when the technology changes, although the technology is a catalyst. Things change when people’s attitude’s change, when their perception of what can be done, and what they can think, and what they can say changes. They always had these capacities, but they didn’t realize that they had them. It’s not so much that the affordances change, it’s that the person’s interaction with those affordances change. It’s sort of, to go back to the doorknob example, like people suddenly get opposable thumbs and they realize: oh, maybe I can open the door. But even that remains a temporary situation, because people go off and do other things, until those attitudes create a longer term change in society. For example, people have the attitude in our society that we are free agents in the workplace and that the relation between employer and employee isn’t one of master and servant but of two free agents entering into a contract for mutual benefit. But until the work environment, and the structure of work, and the organization of the work place itself changes to reflect that, the longer term change that technology affords isn’t going to be possible, isn’t going to be implemented. So it becomes a matter of a democracy of ideas. And I think the same applies to the Islamic world. Islam doesn’t change until individual Muslims change, and it doesn’t change until those individuals realize that they can define Islam for themselves.

ZS: That’s precisely my point. The individuals who have realized that they have to change can then use what is available on the internet as a catalyst for change. I may desire to change, but it may not be possible for me to change; I may need to be empowered. I think the availability of the sources, which have not been accessible in the past, and that are presented in ways that can be digested, makes a difference. So there is this catalyst that is inviting me to change. But the change begins in people’s minds. If people don’t want to change, then no amount of technology and innovation will get them to change.

SD: And when people have changed, taking the technology away won’t take away the change.

ZS: That is true. But you can see that in certain countries, like Saudi Arabia, Sudan, there is this fear of the internet. In some cases that fear is justified (e.g., we don’t want pornography in this country). But basically the real fear is of what is available. In Saudi Arabia for example, people are not allowed to bring copies of unofficial translations of the Qur’an. They want to control the interpretation, the translation. So when they want to censor the internet, what they want to censor is the validity of other varieties of interpretation.

UM: We are starting to shift the discussion to educational affordances. Let me ask you: How far did we get in terms of the original belief that online learning was going to democratize the distribution of knowledge, and revolutionize the way people learn?

RM: I don’t think we have gotten that far. Let’s take a look at the tool we are using right now: Webex. The basic approach is to build on the broadcast model of instruction. I can only talk with the other members of the panel. There is no interaction with the audience. It is a model of a classroom that isn’t a circle of chairs. There is no feedback. Social software hasn’t gone deep into educational institutions yet. What it has done is afford connections across institutions. Academics are using blogs to reach people within the same discipline. People are routing around constraints. You also see research (Liz Lawley, Danah Boyd) on the backchannel in the classroom: the way people ‘pass notes’ using instant messaging and chat. What that does is offer the opportunity for people to have interaction. Some teachers are inviting that kind of participation.

ZS: We should not underestimate the ability of the internet to disseminate knowledge, specially in developing countries. The internet can take education to the village, where it would be very difficult to have teachers and schools. You can at least provide rudimentary education to people who would otherwise not have access to education. The internet can communicate highly centralized knowledge very quickly, systematically and efficiently.

SD: I have lost a lot of patience with the idea of online learning as something that can be practiced in an institution, with the idea that online learning is something that is classroom based and classroom bound. It comes back to the mindset again, to changing the attitude with respect to learning, changing from the idea that learning is something that some institution is going to do for you to something that you are able to do for yourself. As long as we talk about affordances within an institutional framework I think we are missing an important component of the discussion. Sure, research on backchannels is interesting, but from where I sit it is irrelevant (nothing against Liz Lawley), because we shouldn’t be in a situation in the classroom where we have to pass notes in the first place.

UM: I think we were expecting that the technology would ‘shock’ people into adopting more interactive models of teaching and learning, but I don’t think we’ve seen a lot of that.

SD: No, we’ve seen the institution fight back.

ZS: In Britain we have Open University, which has extended reach but not really changed the educational model.

RM: I have one extreme example to provide. Anarchy U is an open university; there are no teachers, only participants. Anyone can sign up through a wiki and offer a class. The role of the university is to provide the coordination and the space for teaching. If enough people sign up, the class is offered, and there is a more collaborative environment. It is much more self-organized and socially oriented.

ZS: But this kind of self-organization leaves out the issue of quality. How do we know anyone teaching the course is actually qualified to teach it, and how do we make sure there is a quality of education?

RM: I suggest with enough iterations. Part of the experiment is to see if, with time, some teachers gain reputation, or negative reputation. Next quarter, people express their opinion about teachers (if class was a waste of time, etc). So there is feedback. [some discussion here about implicit vs. explicit reputation, and the use of wikis to open up the design process and the information architecture to regular users (or spammers!), delaying design decisions until the actual implementation]

UM: The third set of affordances I wanted to talk about is social affordances: how we interact with each other online. Can online interactions be said to be less authentic than face-to-face interactions, and what are the implications of this?

ZS: No question about it. You cannot replace face-to-face communication with online. There’s facial expression, body language, etc. So no, I don’t think you can replace it [discussion here about the demands on our attention of online communication (people expect instant replies), how communication is becoming fragmented, and how the art of communication is disappearing].

SD: Well, I disagree. The idea is not to replace face-to-face, just like the idea of online learning is not to replace the classroom. It’s like trying to design a car to do what a horse used to do. Doesn’t make sense. I have perfectly good relationships with people online. In fact most of my professional contacts and interactions are online, and only once in a while do I have voice communication like this. I live in New Brunswick, not New York City. I don’t see any of these people. Zia talked about online communication placing tyrannical demands for attention, but that’s only if you let it. It’s all about your mindset, all about your attitude. I control my channels [some examples about how Stephen handles his email messages]. I find communication in person to be much more of a tyranny: I HAVE to answer the phone when it rings, I HAVE to respond to somebody when they knock on my door. I find that to manage my own communications is actually a liberation.

ZS: That is basically my main concern. Does that mean one doesn’t have to acknowledge the existence of other people?

SD: But you are assuming that the person standing at the door has some sort of priority. Why should I prefer the person at my door?

ZS: Because that person is standing there in real time. They are real.

SD: The people I communicate with online are also real. But the person coming to my door is demanding that I give him attention NOW. Online, I make the decisions, not the person who imposes his presence in my space.

UM: I’m wondering if we can talk about this in terms of the internet sort of changing the way we express our allegiance [solidarities would have been a better word] to certain people. Online, Stephen seems to be saying that we have more control over deciding whom we want to communicate with and when. And Zia is asking whether by doing that you are losing something of your interaction with your immediate surroundings, where you are forced to deal with people who don’t share your interests, and what are the consequences of that.

RM: Yes, people can get overloaded by information, by others placing lots of demands on their attention. But there are also opportunities for augmentation. Social software tools can augment in-group or face-to-face interaction. Look at Meet Up, for example, a group forming tool that does nothing but bring people face-to-face–that’s a positive, not a negative. There are negatives, of course, such as when tools become victims of their own openness, like email and spam. It comes back to the design, thinking about the social context that the tool is enabling, and not restricting those unintended uses that can be so wonderful.

SD: I think when you look at the design of any tool, you have to ask: What if five billion people start using this all at the same time to express their point of view to you. Because that’s the population that you are looking at. That’s where email went wrong, and that’s where any of these technologies that allow people to push content at you have gone wrong. Sooner or later, the volume of the push is going to become more than what you are willing to put up with. People are willing to put up with a know on the door because they don’t have five thousand people knocking at their door. After a certain point, the imposition of physical presence becomes more than a nuisance.

[some more discussion here about the demands that the new modes of communication create, and how they require strong multitasking skills – some audience members in the chat were admitting to having a hard time following the panelist’s conversation as well as the backchannel conversation. Ross talked about the NetGen’s ability to multitask]

ZS: I think that what might happen is that the new generations will lose the ability to synthesize.

UM: In terms of social interactions, what would you say is the most important thing we need to acknowledge that the internet makes possible, and what is the most important thing we need to acknowledge that the internet makes impossible?

ZS: I think we have already started to answer that question. The internet makes it impossible to have the same experience of having a face-to-face interaction, even if in 10 years we have technological advances on video conferencing and all. When you look at someone’s face, you read so much. And when that experience is mediated, all the nuances are lost. [Zia added something about how, on the other hand, the internet has made it possible to know people whom otherwise we would probably not get to know.]

RM: I have to disagree. [Stephen does too]. Look at it this way. Alex [Halavais] is in the channel right now. He is someone that I got to know through blogging first. I got a sense of his research and the things he is writing about. Then when we met face-to-face for the first time, it was like we were old friends. We had an existing relationship. You CAN build trust between people using the net.

SD: [something to the effect that Stephen would trade facial expression for a website any day! – laughter]

RM: What is interesting is that the constraint of bandwidth that we have actually makes us focus on different facets of different people’s identities and aspects of their lives, and forces us to be a little more productive.

[some more friendly disagreement]

SD: Just because you don’t have the physical information does not meant that the information can’t be conveyed through other channels. We talked about text vs. face-to-face communication. But the things is that the text communication does not happen in a vacuum. It happens in a framework and background of interaction, and it is this framework and background that can be used to transmit the same information, if not more information, as a facial gesture [an example here about how Stephen flew to Australia on the basis of having an email conversation only]. And the other things is that it’s not like when we are online we suddenly become disembodied. It’s not like when we go online our neighbors cease to exist, that we no longer have conversations or anything like that. What happens is that when we go online we being to exercise more control over the nature, number and structure of these relationships [more about Stephen having more in common with the audience than with his neighbors, so why would he think that an environment where he can only communicate with his neighbors is better? Which doesn’t mean Stephen doesn’t like or speak to his neighbors!]. What does the technology make possible? It makes possible the ability for me to make choices. But the thing is there has to be a mental shift that needs to take place before this recognition comes into place. A mental shift in terms of the person making the choice, and on the part of the other people in recognizing that it’s ok for me to make the choice, and that different things work for different people.

ZS: I want choice just as much as anybody else. But what I am saying is that if choice becomes an end in itself, then the end will be a very bad end.

SD: Why?

ZS: Because if all you see is the choice and nothing else, then you don’t have time to step back and examine the choice, and think about doing something differently. You are always running to make choices.

UM: Well, to turn it back to how we started the conversation, talking about democratic affordances: how making a particular choice devalue other choices, and how does that affect the kind of society we have?

SD: Well, it’s devaluing the idea of me acting in the way you want me to act.

UM: But it also devaluing the idea of compromise, of negotiation.

SD: No, I still compromise when I make choices. It’s not like I have eliminated the possibility of compromise in my life. But what it does is make me equal partner in the negotiations that lead to that compromise. And it’s not like I am always making choices. I sit back and enjoy the experience as well! The capacity to make choices doesn’t mean that I am required to do that at all times, just as the capacity to speak doesn’t mean that I would speak at all times.

ZS: I think the point is not about you, Stephen. The point is about the next generation. The people who have grown up making these choices perpetually. And making the choice becomes an end in itself for them.

RM: The interesting thing is that when everybody has the capacity to make choices, they impact others by doing so. But the by-product of those interactions can actually foster growth. In wikis, for example, by sharing control we also build trust [Ross also gives example of decentralization in the organization as a way to increase efficiency, and for people at the edge of the network to make decisions].

UM: Alex [Halavais] is asking whether the openness of these affordances will increase or decrease over time.

RM: Probably both simultaneously [Ross talks about the role that institutions, in regulating things like intellectual property, etc., will have on the fabric of society]. I do have hope because there are innate human desires to transmit, pass on, remix media, to modify artifacts. I am a believer in the end of history, where liberal democracy ends up being the one formal political ideology. There is no such thing as a closed system, and because of that desire or openness in expression, it will open any closed system.

ZS: I do believe in open systems, but I don’t believe in the end of history. I believe it might be possible, using the internet, to have other political systems emerge that are just as open as liberal democracy.

SD: I don’t believe in the end of history either. I have certain goals and values that I’m working towards, but I certainly don’t see those an inevitable. As we look through history, the struggle for democracy has suffered setbacks that have lasted generations, even centuries. So none of this is inevitable. I do believe with Zia that there are alternative organizations of society that provide openness that are not necessarily liberal democracy, and the current notion of democracy is going to have to change before we get to anything like a truly free society.

ZS: I couldn’t agree with you more.

UM: To wrap it up, let me ask the question that all panelists hate to be asked. In a couple of sentences, what can we do, as users, as designers of technology, to ensure that affordances are open enough, but also to challenge their limits? Basically: What can we do?

ZS: We need to change mindsets. As Stephen was saying, when you are stuck in a particular mindset, you only know how to think one way, to communicate one way. I think we need to think outside the box, and if the technology can provide the ability to help us think outside the box, then all is well and good. But I think the technology does not provide us with that ability. It needs to come from within ourselves, and we need to be conscious that we are thinking within the box, and we need to change things to make those open affordances all that open and all that transformative.

SD: I completely agree with that, and I will take it one step further. Begin to teach yourself how you can do that. Begin to shape a different identity. Participate in role-play, in online games, create a blog under a pseudonym and argue for a position you disagree with. Deliberately assume different stances and teach yourself how to have an open mind.

RM: Form a network around your own passions. It has to come from within, but you can leverage the tools that are, again, relatively accessible for most. The only thing you can do in a sustainable fashion is the stuff you feel personally interested in, but you need to expose yourself to social feedback as well. You don’t have to do something only as an individual, but also as a group.

UM: Thank you. Unfortunately, we have run out of time. This has been a very stimulating, thought-provoking discussion, and I would like to thank everyone, panelists and audience, for contributing to it.

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