A great book which gives a really helpful insight into the notion of “affordances” and “constraints”. They give the example of the invention of the wristwatch – how it changed what was possible – including the nature of battle – by allowing pilots/soldiers to co-ordinate action and free their hands from needs to consult a pocket watch. Many industrialisation processes are then based on the ability to keep track of time. Human interaction became more of a process of scheduled meetings rather than chance encounters. It became the right “time” to eat, rather than whether you are hungry or not, and time became like money – to be parceled out/constantly aware of. As other devices tell us the time, the wristwatch has become less of a timekeeping device, and more of a social marker – think Rolex!
Of course, the obvious question is whether it was the development of the wristwatch that brought on all of these social and psychological changes, or the social and psychological changes that brought on the development of the wristwatch. Our answer is: both. Human beings are constantly creating and adapting cultural tools to meet the needs of new material or social circumstances or new psychological needs. These tools, in turn, end up changing the material and social circumstances in which they are used as well as the psychological needs of those who use them. (p5)
The authors give insights into a range of things that have been made possible, and no longer make sense, with the invention of new technologies. Taking this to its furthest reaches: optimists see technology developing – that it will take over routine mental tasks, allowing brain space for creative new connections, whilst pessimists see digital technology as taking away our ability to concentrate and think deeply, weakening our ability to think for ourselves and evaluate knowledge critically.
Many fall into either technological dystopianism or utopianism …
Mediational means like computers and the internet are neither good nor bad – they simply introduce into our social interaction certain affordances and constraints in particular social contexts which we have the ability to respond and adapt to in any number of creative ways, some with positive social consequences, and some with negative ones.
As new ways of thinking develop around new media, it is typical for people to feel insecure that their old ways of meaning/doing, etc. are being lost or marginalized. Think back to Socrates – who defined writing as a potential threat to civilization – that ‘real truth’ would be limited by the symbols that represented them. We’ve seen similar fears re the printing press, cinema and TV. We see similar concerns today – some are justified, others are based in emotions and insecurity: most focus on constraints, meaning making, social relationships, thinking and identity construction.
Just because a tool offers particular abilities/constraints doesn’t determine what we can do with them – we’re always likely to figure out new ways of doing things with them [e.g. think how SMS on mobile phones wasn’t anticipated]. All the media we use we rarely use in isolation – they are parts of systems of actions/activities, etc.