On affordances

Tape as pandemic cultural element

Lately I have been thinking about the concept of affordances when I came across posts such as above and the many ways people use other things to function as face masks. As I am writing this, words appear on my computer monitor that was propped on top of three of my childhood hardcover encyclopaedias, as a way to level the screen with my eyes. The books would still function as books, but they are also thick and sturdy enough to serve as a leveller for my computer monitor. I am a pacifist and would never condone the act, but I know someone who had used a thick book to swat insects. The examples I cited here show the affordances of the hardcover encyclopaedias, or in simpler terms, the potentials of how a material could function other than what it was intended to be used as e.g. hardcover books were supposed to be read, not to be used as a leveller or to harm other things, but there was no way to stop them from being used as such. It was first introduced by Don Norman in his book The Design of Everyday Things (the book used to be my bible in design school until I learned that it lacked a number of significant gender and racial-based analysis) of which he mentioned, “An affordance is a relationship between the properties of an object and the capabilities of the agent that determine just how the object could possibly be used. A chair affords (‘is for’) support and, therefore, affords sitting.” Affordances serve as a guideline in how we navigate the world — which is the crux of interface design, physically and virtually — as the more affordances of materials we are familiar with, the more likely we are able to navigate the world as smoothly as possible.

As an opposite, there were also what we would call ‘disaffordances’ and ‘dysaffordances’ — the former stands for the functions which prohibit people to do something (e.g. a lock refraining a door to be opened, a fence keeping people out of a land, a fingerprint scanner on a phone that did not allow access for others except its owner) and the latter, on a more intentional scale, the cues that require some users to misidentify themselves when they are about to use them (e.g. a non-binary person that was forced to select either only Male or Female in a form, a black person who was failed to be identified on a facial detection technology unless they put on a lighter mask). In a way, the study of affordances, disaffordances, and dysaffordances, could serve as a blueprint in how to design a product while taking consideration and action of how it could benefit and harm every group of people imaginable. I have mentioned it numerous times, but if you would like to learn more, I would recommend Sasha Costanza-Chock’s paper and her latest book Design Justice. She’ll also be talking in this Data & Society Databites session next Wednesday on a more GMT+8-friendly time, so RSVP here!

On a personal note, I just received an email saying that my doctoral examination is to be conducted viva voce online on 8th May, which is like, in two weeks! Time to get back to work.

Reading in my tabs:

  • Maybe we’re all so anxious because “emotional contagion” is a thing.
  • “How should we self-optimise when we’re suddenly having to meet our deadlines with our roommates, kids, and inner critics screaming in the background?” We need to stop worshipping at the altar of productivity, especially right now.
  • “We have now spent a month debating how these technologies might threaten our privacy – but that is not the greatest danger to our democracies. The real risk is that this crisis will entrench the solutionist toolkit as the default option for addressing all other existential problems – from inequality to climate change. After all, it is much easier to deploy solutionist tech to influence individual behaviour than it is to ask difficult political questions about the root causes of these crises.” The tech ‘solutions’ for coronavirus take the surveillance state to the next level.
  • “Occluded by the foreground subject of our heads like a Baroque portrait painting, the Zoom background is just a glimpse into whatever space we happen to be in at the time: the corner of a room, the top of a table, a slice of view from a nearby window. It’s just what the camera of our laptop or phone can capture, a fixed, mechanical view. And yet that bit of information communicates so much, particularly in our current quarantine. It shows off, intentionally or not, both where we choose to be and where we are able to be during this crisis.” I have been thinking about this distinction of public vs private sphere in video calls a lot, especially as I am about to ‘invite’ my thesis examiners into my house as my viva is going to be conducted online.
  • “Accepting that engaging with the work firsthand is never going to be completely reproducible, no matter the level of technological sophistication, what I missed most keenly was the spatial component. Interior architecture is its own kind of user interface, and a key factor in art’s enjoyment.” On the rise of the virtual gallery tour.
  • Why cross-cultural design really matters.
  • I didn’t know this! A list of magazine stories that inspired entire movies e.g. Argo, Hustlers, Spotlight, Adaptation, The Fast and the Furious, and Boogie Nights, among others.
  • This poem is called “First lines of emails I’ve received while quarantining.”


  • Reading: Rebecca Solnit’s Hope In The Dark, another apt reading during these times.
  • Viewing: Still binging on Community over meals.
  • Listening: Prince all day.
  • Food & Drink: My uncle, who lives nearby, dropped Nasi Royale at our doorstep.

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