Think about the coffee cup you are holding as you read this on your device of choice. It affords many potential actions: grasping, tilting, and sipping. It also affords easy stable placement. It affords keeping the coffee reasonably warm and not burning your lips.
Affordances make up our immediate world. Look around you, everything is “affording” you effective streamlined action. The very floor under your feet being smooth affords unconscious efficient movement without looking.
All living things are directly enmeshed in their environment in this manner. They are embodied beings in action connecting with what is around them by what it directly affords them. This is not done via thoughtful introspection but directly and immediately: a squirrel ducks under a rock, and we lean our elbow on a table to rest our heads.
This is a critical point, most of our knowing and understanding are of this kind: it is our skilled know-how directly engaged in activity with what the environment directly affords us.
Affordances Are Not In Anything
But is the affordance really “in” the cup?
Could you have this affordance of grasping if you had cat paws or crow claws?
The coffee cup affords us, with our particular physical bodies and skills, grasping.
The Gibsons, who developed the concept of affordances and co-founded the approach of Environmental Psychology, were adamant about this point: An affordance is neither in the thing nor is it in us: it is the outcome of a situation. Affordances step out of, or negate the subject-object divide. Affordances are the relation -- the dance and dialog that has stabilized between us and things.
“Features” can only show up as what they “are” in action. Environmental Features are relational. It is as if part of “us” is in the feature and part of the feature is in us:
This is precisely why the Embodied tradition of cognition talks about how we are Embodied, Extended, and Embedded:
- Our particular unique embodied physical beings matter
- What extends us out into and connects us with the environment (shoes, glasses, knives, smartphones, etc.) matter.
- The surrounding material landscape in which we are embedded matters.
AND when you put it all together what emerges is not simply a coming together of neutral physical elements -- but the ENACTMENT of a directly meaningful environment -- a holistic world of affordances. A seemingly magical world that “works”.
It is precisely an Enacted World because one cannot “see” it -- or them (the affordances) by being a disinterested neutral observer of reality (if such a thing could even exist) — this world only emerges -- is enacted -- in action.
The dance and dialog is worldmaking. A world that emerges from the middle. Literally: once we put together Embodied + Extended + Embedded the “system” snaps into a new state: a world of affordances emerging and always growing from the middle.
Think of how often in the course of the day we use whatever is handy to do things: we step on a chair to change a bulb, or a dishcloth to grab a hot pan or a large mug as a smartphone speaker. In these moments we see the world around us directly for what it affords and we can sense the web of a world -- our world.
Surfing a Dense Web of Affordances
We live in an environment that we have transformed to be totally loaded with affordances. But we are not unique in this: All living beings live in similar environments that they have played an active role in shaping. All life is to some degree enactive -- it is intimately and irreversibly conjoined with an environment that it co-shapes. All life lives as coupled beings: subject-environments in the dance of action and co-shaping.
We humans are hyper environment shapers. We have shaped every part of our immediate worlds. This is not inherently a bad thing or a destructive thing, for after all to be alive is to be and to co-shape an environment. To be able to act whatsoever is to be an environment-in-the-making. To be able to think whatsoever is to be an environment.
It is worth pausing on this for a moment. You are not a discreet individual.
You’re an individual [+] environment [=] coupling.
And you’re a very, very, integrated couple -- you and your environment. This integration both allows for creativity and also makes it very hard (as we will return to ………. something).
Tools are Stabilized Affordances
If the world around us is experienced directly in this manner that means everything we engage with is experienced in this manner. A coffee cup, the table, the chair -- look all around you: everywhere affordances -- opportunities for potential action.
Things -- objects that we have designed with a purpose in mind are transformed and stabilized affordances. We move from a noticed affordance to stabilizing them via tool making.
What does it mean to stabilize something -- first we are talking about the process of creation and creativity, and secondly, we are talking about the process of constraining the possibilities. This is a critical point: creating, and creativity involve seeing processes emerge that afford possibilities and then constraining the dynamic system so they become stabilized and do not dissipate (we will come back to this shortly).
Part Two: Constraints
Constraints are clearly critical to making things -- we need to constrain the clay from dissolving to get a coffee cup. We need to constrain the coffee from cooling down too fast to get a good cup of coffee. We want certain affordances we notice to become more “real” -- our forms of creativity are all about sensing potential affordances and making them more present by constraining their dynamics so they do one thing and not another.
Everything Dissolves and Everything Organizes
The basic law of the universe is that entropy is increasing. Everything is falling apart, energy and order are dissipating and eventually, the universe will become a homogeneous near nothing. That's the second law of thermodynamics. The universe is moving towards homeostasis.
But all around us, we see order -- things seem pretty organized and pretty creative: mountains are forming, new life forms are emerging, and a new version of candy crush will be out any day now.
All around us we see non-living matter self-organizing spontaneously (the morphodynamics of self-organizing systems) into forms and living things maintaining themselves, evolving, and propagating. Creative dynamic systems are everywhere and everywhere more creative.
How can this be? How can the universe be dissipating and organizing at the same time? How can both be true?
It turns out that, as Ilya Prigogine pointed out, this is not so hard to explain in the big picture: Energy is more efficiently dissipated by order.
A whirlpool is a great example of this. The whirlpool is created by a disturbance in the chaotic flow of water and forms as a system that takes a specific semi-stable form by limiting all of the possibilities of where water could go to one pattern, but in doing so energy is dissipated faster than it would be if the system was less coherent.
There is always an excess of entropy and spontaneous order. Entropy is increasing more than order, but this does not mean that order is not also increasing -- it is just increasing at a lesser rate.
We live in an excessively creative world with ever more order and creative and novel order emerging continuously.
What matters to us is that the dynamics of order is constraining the infinite dissipation of entropy. Self-organizing systems are types of constraints on all the dynamic possibilities that stabilize boundary conditions and through the use of energy persist.
This most basic form of creativity -- the forming and persisting of a dynamic system is based on limiting and constraining possibilities of how something can occur. The more is becoming less.
Creativity is about doing less.
This is a critical addition to our initial definition of creativity as the process of making the new. Now we can say:
Creativity is the development of new forms of constraining system dynamics to produce novel constrained dynamic systems.
Why does this matter?
If we come back to Affordances and our coffee cup.
It is as a material thing the outcome of constrained self-organizing processes that were never intended to make a coffee cup but have been harnessed and stabilized via a complex set of further constraining and stabilizing practices to take on a form.
This form is constrained to maximize certain affordances: holding liquids, keeping them warm, meeting our mouths, meeting our hands, meeting our surfaces, etc. In this way, we have creatively gone from more to less.
From more to less and different: the first cup.
This cup is part of an invention and creation of a set of practices, habits, concepts, tools, etc. that form a specific environment that constrains and holds together the pleasure of coffee making and drinking. This dance of co-shaping of the dynamic system “canalizes” -- makes it easier and more streamlined. The careful shaping of an environment into a task-space off-loads memory, skills, and know-what into a highly regulated (constrained) environment that strongly affords certain practices.
We are again stabilizing the many novel possibilities as a novel few possibilities.
Affordances Are Not Creative
But this cup -- this specific set of carefully bundled affordances that makes our morning so wondrous is haunted by an excess of possible linkages to other spaces and other affordances.
It could be used for anything from a ladle to a measurement tool, to a pen holder, to a spider catcher, to a hammer, to a percussion instrument.
These are new uses for the coffee cup -- but are they genuinely new affordances?
Not really. We are just using one existing thing (the coffee cup) to do some other already existing actions (store pencils, measure flour, cut cookies, etc.) based on its more-than-coffee affordances. We are taking an intended affordance (containing) and using it for an unintended but similar purpose. While there is some novelty in this, it is a type of repurposing that does not in itself introduce real disruptive novelty into the situation.
We do also take unintended affordances and put them to new but existing uses. For example, we could flip the cup upside down and use it as a candle holder, and the small lip on the bottom, which was designed to afford resting without wobbling on uneven surfaces, unintentionally can now serve to collect and stop the dripping wax from spilling onto the table. Using it as a percussion instrument would be quite similar -- the unique sonic resonances that it affords were never intended.
These are new uses for the cup but are they genuinely novel?
They are not. Ultimately they all connect us back to existing actions and practices that sit inside task-spaces, environments, our abilities, and identity. This is where it is critical to understand that we are not discreet individuals but are individual+environment couplings. The constraints that create this system and make it persist are not in our heads but held across the system. It is never, change your mind and the rest will follow. The intense entanglements of the totality of the system mutually create, constrain and stabilize a mode-of-being -- a world.
This environment/world is perfectly constrained to allow for all sorts of forms of change-in-degree, but not changes in kind.
This is why genuine novelty is really hard: we live, see, and sense affordances -- our intimately coupled self-environment realities.
Affordances are Creative
But how can we sense an affordance that could push this constrained dynamic system into a new stable but totally distinct dynamic? How can we go from world preserving and expanding to novel world-making?
How could a new constraint arise that would constrain us to become other than what we are?
Is there an emergent self-organizing constraint that we could sense as an affordance that could perhaps iteratively usher us into the new?
This is the seventh of seven articles critically deconstructing the concepts of creativity and innovation as they have historically developed in the west with the goal of proposing alternative approaches.
Part One we look at how creativity, in the sense of the making of something genuinely new, was not part of the western tradition until the mid 1800’s. And that for the previous 2,000+ years to create was to copy.
Part Two we delve into “Where did your Big Idea come from?” We go on a genealogical journey to discover how we came to believe those big ideas are both the source and goal of creativity and innovation.
Part Three we unearth the overlooked "Thinking is not in your head" – Thinking, especially creative thinking happens in the middle of acting and doing.
Part Four we examine "The New Cannot be Seen or Thought" -- so how does the new emerge if it cannot be seen or thought?
Part Five is an examination of Reality is Creativity -- on creativity being a fundamental aspect of reality itself.
Part Six questions Creativity: “and what else can it do?” -- introducing the concept of affordances and its relevance to creativity so that you can be more creative and innovative.
Part Seven - Creativity is Less - dives deeper into affordances introducing constraints and how they are the unheralded secret to all innovation