ASLCore: affordance theory, or “thing-inform”

June 30, 2018 – 11:41 pm

Okay. In my last post, I danced around happily exclaiming about how cool the ASLCore project is for engineering and computing (and all the other fields it covers — philosophy, art, biology, literature, physics, etc.). In that post, I used the stress/strain curve (and its related group of concepts and their respective signs in ASL and words in English) to explain a bit of our process.

In this post, I want to discuss one of my favorite parts of working on ASLCore, which is that it leads to great conversations about what these words are, what these terms mean. These conversations happen both within the ASLCore team and outside it.

For instance, Mitch Cieminski (hearing, non-signing friend and colleague) and I were talking this week about affordance theory in the context of some of their work. During our conversation, I showed Mitch our new sign for “affordance.” (Crucial note: our intent is not to be prescriptive or say that our sign is the “correct”one — it is to offer it to the ASL community as an option, and let people choose whether and how to take it up and play with it, because this is how language works: organically, communally.)

Now, unlike some other technical terms, there’s no universalized set meaning for what, precisely, “affordances” are in English (or any other language, as far as I’m aware). If you’re new to the concept, check out the Wikipedia page, and you’ll rapidly find that the jury is still out on precisely what it means for something to “afford” something else; are we using Gibson’s definition? Norman’s? Someone else’s? (Can any of these definitions really be viewed as formal definitions?) The design fields have been debating this for a while, and I don’t think we’ll resolve that debate of anytime soon. One reason I am really proud of our signs for “affordance” and “afford” is that they feel (to me) as if they capture the shared essence of the concept represented in that discourse… without attempting to come down on one side or another of the definition debate.

The sign for “afford” (which is a verb) comes from an ASL sign that is often translated into English as “to inform.” It is directional, which means that it can be signed in ways that indicate who is informing whom. If I signed it starting from me and towards you, it can be translated “I am informing you.” If I signed it towards myself, that might be translated as “inform me,” or “let me know.” You can use it in many ways, but it’s typically set up as going between two beings/persons – person X is informing person Y.

Our sign for “afford” takes that same sign’s motion and handshape — but instead has it come from a thing (here, represented by an invisible object held in the signer’s other hand).  It’s what the object tells us. It’s what the object lets us know — about itself, about how we might use it, and so forth. For an object to afford something is for it to be informing us via how it exists as an object (as opposed to, say, having separate documentation telling us how we ought to use it).

The noun form — what an object affords — is an “affordance.” The sign adds the possessive marker (how we would indicate concepts like yours, mine, ours, etc.), which assigns the affordances as belonging to the object, and also changes it from verb to noun. Again, roughly speaking — the concept is that of the things that the object tells us about itself. (“See that object? See how it tells us things about itself? Those things it tells us — they are affordances.”)

Mitch caught on immediately as to how we could play with the concept of “affordances” via playing with the sign. Would it, Mitch asked, be signed differently if I talked about what an object affords me, as opposed to what an object affords someone else? Yes, I answered; I’d just change the directionality — the object informs me, or informs you, or informs them, and you can tell which one I mean by which direction I make the sign in. We both grinned, because this is how affordances work — an object’s affordances are relative to whoever might be using it. (An infant car seat affords sitting for my friends’ tiny children — but it does not afford such for me as a full-grown adult who wouldn’t fit.)

Thing-inform; what it is that the thing informs us of. Affordance.

Flash back to the ASLCore team discussion several weeks earlier, where I was attempting to explain the (very abstract, philosophical, and ponderously worded) formal definitions I had found to the translation team, using objects around the room as examples. A chair affords sitting. The loop on my water bottle affords my picking it up and dangling it on my finger; as does the handle on this mug, but this smooth-sided glass does not have this affordance. This door handle affords pushing, and also opening the door — but in a different way than that doorknob, or this plate on a swinging door.

We went through several translation options. Was an affordance something that was “possible” to do with a thing? No — it would be possible, albeit awkward and painful, for me to sit on my water bottle, but I would not say my water bottle afforded sitting in the way that, say, a chair does. Did “to afford” mean “to permit” or “to allow”? (This had been my previous closest sign for the concept.) No, that didn’t feel quite right; we needed something stronger. Was it what was “all right” to do with the thing? No, this wasn’t so much about social acceptability; weapons clearly afford harming people, but it’s often explicitly not ”all right” to use them to do so in most situations. 

(We also punned bilingually. Until we settled on the current sign, we occasionally used the phonetic equivalent of “Afford-Dance” as a placeholder — the signs that you’d use to mean “afford” as in “afford the cost,” and “dance” as in “dance to the music.” The room was full of winks and grimaces, snark and linguistic play.)

Was an affordance like a feature? asked the translation team. Did something need to be a product in order to afford things, did it need to be a final product, or could a design or prototype or an object that was not designed by humans also have affordances? (Yes; a chair affords sitting, but so does a fallen tree stump in the woods.) How was the notion of affordance related to our earlier discussion of the functions of a product? (Later, we would discuss how a software function in the context of computer programming was both related to and distinct from this notion of the functions of a product.)

The team pushed my understanding of the topic, of the term, of it usage, of its interconnections. I’ve written papers using affordance theory, and I had never thought so hard about what it means for an object to afford something, or what an affordance was, or was not — I could no longer take the term for granted. Creating language is hard, folks! Creating language is hard, and it’s one of the most wonderful kinds of hard I’ve ever experienced.

Anyway. We went off on this for a while, and then at some point, someone signed so, it’s what the thing tells you about itself? and I swiveled around, electric: that, THAT! Yes! It’s what the thing tells you about — how you can use it, what it’s for… 

And so they tweaked it, and then – thing-inform. Afford, the verb form. And then the noun form… what it is that the thing informs you of – affordance(s).

We had a sign. I was so happy that I think I actually jumped for joy. I definitely fist-pumped, and a bunch of (hearing) friends who knew affordance theory got all-caps, multiple-exclamation-points text messages during the next break that WE HAD A SIGN FOR AFFFORDANCE!!!! because I was… uh… maybe just a little bit excited. (There’s a reason why my name sign comes from the image of a puppy’s tail enthusiastically wagging.)

So that’s the story of “affordance” and “afford,” as best as I can tell it. I want to write this out for so, so many other signs as well — most of them have a story like this, and a meaning packed in, that is hard for non-signers to understand. I want to share with my non-signing friends some of the complexity and richness of what we are doing, in this world of engineering and computing ASL — because I hope you’ll start to see how Deafness and Deaf culture and signed languages in engineering might be something marvelous to learn from, not something to pity or treat as a mere “accommodation” or “support” to help people “catch up” (which implies that they are “behind” to start with, which is not the way it has to be).

I want you to see this with the sense of play and joy and wonder and intensity we brought to it; I want you to see why it is beautiful — so you will want to see and use this language, too.

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