Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Ian Hutchby on affordances and the text metaphor


Really interesting extracts from Hutchby on affordances and the text metaphor:
Grint and Woolgar (1997) suggest the intriguing notion that technologies
should be treated as ‘texts’which are ‘written’ (i.e. configured) in certain ways by their developers, producers and marketers, and have to be ‘read’ (i.e. interpreted) by their users or consumers. The writers of these technology-texts may seek to impose particular meanings on the artefact, and to constrain the range of possible
interpretations open to users.Users, by contrast,may seek to produce readings of the technology-text which best suit the purposes they have in mind for the artefact. It is in the dynamic between these processes that sociologists can begin to locate the
meaningful social reality of technologies. Neither the writing nor the reading of technology-texts is determinate: both are open, negotiated processes. Although there may be ways that technology-texts have ‘preferred’ readings built into them, it is always open to the user to find a way around this attempt at interpretive closure. A good example is the telephone. As Frissen (1995) points out, one of the early ways that the telephone was marketed to a mass audience (‘written’, in Grint and Woolgar’s terms) was as an instrumental tool useful for business negotiations (for men) and the management of household services (for women).However, women in particular began to ‘read’ this technology in quite a different way – as a tool for sociability, for chatting – and after a while the manufacturers, sensitive to this new reading, began to market what was to all intents a ‘different’ technology to the one they had begun with. (Hutchby 201: 445)

... different technologies possess different affordances, and these affordances constrain the ways that they can possibly be ‘written’ or ‘read’. (Hutchby 201: 447)

... the range of possibilities for interpretation and action is nowhere near as open for either ‘writers’ or ‘readers’ as the technology as text metaphor implies. (Hutchby 201: 450)

My aim has been to argue for an acceptance that our interpretations and uses
of technological artefacts, while important, contingent and variable, are constrained
in analysable ways by the ranges of affordances that particular artefacts possess. The
social constructivist consensus has usefully brought to the forefront the recognition
that social processes are involved in all aspects of technology, and not simply in its
effects upon society. But we can become too fixated on the social shaping of technology at the expense of an equally pressing, though differently framed, concern with the technological shaping of social action. (Hutchby 201: 453)

The affordances of an artefact are not things which impose themselves upon humans’ actions with, around, or via that artefact.But they do set limits on what it is possible to do with, around, or via the artefact. By the same token, there is not one but a variety of ways of responding to the range of affordances for action and interaction that a technology presents.We can analyse the development of those responses empirically, but in order to do so we have to accept that technological artefacts do not amount simply to what their users make of them; what is made of them is accomplished in the interface between human aims and the artefact’s affordances.(Hutchby 201: 453)




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