Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Volume 93! Affordances, Exaptations & Creative Practices...
Good morning novel affordance initiators towards surprising results,
We hope that you have had the chance to celebrate this week – for us, it was Juneteenth and the summer solstice. There is something really special that these all coincide with one another.
This week we are continuing our conversational style of back-and-forth discussion based on the exploration of affordances that we introduced last week. One of us will be “speaking” in bold and the other in a standard font:
So what are we discussing this week?
Let’s take some time to consider more directly the role of affordances in creative processes. And try to focus on how the radically new can come about in such processes…
Ok – perhaps we should begin with a quick reminder about affordances?
The concept of affordance gives us a way to understand how our reality, as it is perceived and engaged, is something that is relational – it is the outcome of the meeting of our embodied abilities and some aspect of the environment. And this meeting – this relation gives rise to specific opportunities for action.
We diagrammed it as this:
And this is an expansion of the understanding that we are, as individuals, are individuating processes coupled with a relevant mutually shaping environment:
We used the example a few newsletters ago of a squirrel and our cat Blacktop to get at how affordances give rise to “specific opportunities for action” and what this means for our sense of reality and potential.
…That they both share the same space of our driveway, but they live in very different environments – worlds, really…
Yes, For the squirrel, the cables overhead, what we understand as power and telecommunication lines, “afford” a safe elevated wire pathway across yards and streets. For our cat, they afford no such thing. Same space but different worlds of what shows up in what way to allow for specifically meaningful potentials for action.
This is not a simple issue of differing “subjective perceptions” of an “objective” neutral environment – (which is the classical way to understand this situation). The squirrel and Blacktop (or squirrels and cats in general) have differing physical worlds because of the relation between their embodied abilities/capacities and specific relational aspects of the environment that these connect with. Blacktop cannot subjectively will himself to scurry across a squirrel wire path. Urban squirrels live in and of a fully three-dimensional woven world where the ground plane is only one dimension of movement possibility. Blacktop lives on and of a ground plane – a highly contoured one for sure – but a ground plane nonetheless.
And then last week, we looked at how a rich landscape of affordances can produce human worlds that are ontologically distinct?
Yes, here we followed the insightful expanded definition of affordances proposed by Rietveld et al: affordances are relations between aspects of the sociomaterial environment and abilities available in a form of life; in a practice. And this can give rise to multiple entangled but ontologically distinct worlds…
A key aspect of why this is the case is that there is a relation between enabling and constraining – affordances are also constraints.
We can see that what is afforded is also relationally constrained – of all the potentially infinite possibilities of everything involved in an event – there has been a reduction that makes certain possibilities far more likely than others. And that reduction, that constraint, is in relation to how embodied abilities meet relevant aspects of the environment.
This is something that Gary Tomlinson points out, “Organisms join with one another in defining the affordance/constraint complementarity… We might speak of tall plants constraining the growth of small ones, but we could speak equally well of the environmental affordances for the growth of the small plants…
The constraint, like the affordance, is not a “thing” but a relation – it is the creative restriction of a system within certain bounds. Affordance and constraint are two sides of the same coin, so to speak, and are also complementary to organization.
Very much so – and with this understanding of affording and constraining a world – a way of being of certain emergent possibilities, Terrance Deacon defines such a constraint:
“The state of being restricted or confined within prescribed bounds. The concept of constraint is… a complementary concept of order… because something that is ordered is restricted in its range… and consequently tends to exhibit redundant features or regularities. A dynamical system is constrained to the extent that it is restricted in degrees of freedom to change and exhibits attractor tendencies…”
So All affordances are limited, but still, there is a large landscape of possible actions?
Yes, this is always quite large. And within the space of all of the context-relevant possibilities for action, some are codified as “the purpose” of the relation and the things that participate in this relation.
This is also how we can talk about designed and built “things” – they have a limited purpose, but they afford – allow for a much wider spectrum of possible actions.
Yes, – things are, from this perspective, stabilized affordances. A bike, for example, affords (to someone with our type of body and a certain set of skills that is also in the right environment) the possibility of moving in certain ways: weaving down trails, zipping down long inclined roads, hopping curbs…
And the bike – as a designed object is made such that some affordances – some limited set of “relational opportunities for action” can become the “purpose” of the bike.
This is a type of mutually determining creative tuning dance between environment, thing, skilled bodies, a way of life, and what is afforded – allowing for specific opportunities for action to emerge.
Yes – a big part of our creativity is the stabilizing and fine-tuning of the socio-material aspects of this thing and the environment to further reduce and stabilize affordances into a set purpose – as it emerges in action.
That makes sense – it is more an ongoing co-creative process of “thinging” as Lambros Malafouris calls it. We are not, as creative designers, imposing an arbitrary form on a passive matter – what we have called elsewhere the “god model” – but we are experimentally attuning-making-stabilizing what emerges as interesting through direct engagement with affordances (emerging potentially novel opportunities for action).
The beauty of approaching things this way is that we can see that to get to what we would just term our outside “reality” is a co-creative act. Our reality is real but neither fully objective nor fully subjective. Having a reality is a skilled co-creative achievement that is so mundane that we hardly notice it (sense-making). Creativity is a fundamental feature of being alive & of reality in general.
This brings us to the question of the production of novelty (innovation)...
Yes, but let's take things slowly. The bike is a good starting place.
As we have already established the “bike,” really our embodied skilled engagement with the bike in a specific environment always affords far more than is intended (stabilized in design/use as the purpose of the thing) .
– That is true – just look at the great Scottish rider Danny MacAskill – here, intention and purpose are being really stretched. The bike was never intended to do these things we see him doing. in the video – but neither was the fence he was riding upon – nor could one argue was the human who is skilfully participating in doing this. But the occasion – the relation – if carefully, creatively expanded and stabilized – affords – enables new sets of possible actions.
Absolutely – in an ordered urban domain filled with stable practices, purposes, purposeful things, and established identities – all of what is afforded cannot be predetermined. We understand and utilize roads, fences, steps, and bollards, as part of expected forms of movement and expected uses of things like bikes, etc. –
– But, at the same time, in the same moment, our experience always fringes upon virtual possibilities that exceed all of this – but not in a wiley niley manner – novel affordances have to be carefully co-created – and that is hard work – as we see with Danny nearly impaling himself on the fence… His body is being changed (muscles, balance, response, etc.), new skills are being developed, and the bike is changing. And because of this, it is possible to make a new landscape of affordances/constraints with its novel set of opportunities for action to emerge.
A new world is emerging…
So a stable, ordered system of proper actions (not biking on the top edge of fences) is a practice that tentatively sits upon a much more dynamic, open, and creative complex self-organizing system…?
This is where we would argue that all those practices that want to see system domains as being ontologically distinct – ordered, complex and chaotic, etc. really become less helpful as an approach if we are coming at things from the perspective of creativity and innovation. How things come about (onto-genesis) and how new possibilities of affordances emerge – then these domains are not ontologically distinct.
The power of utilizing an affordance approach is that we can see how and why we are involved with co-creative practices that are everywhere – and that our creative lived reality is one of ontogenesis – we are active participants in the emergence of the new every day, in all of our practices… in how we work with things, with our environments and with our ways of being alive.
So while most of the time, our creative practices involve maintaining and stabilizing existing possibilities for action – affordances and their landscape of possible actions always far exceed what is actually being enacted – always far exceed what is being done at any moment – never mind what is considered stable or proper.
Absolutely, we should get more nuanced here as we are getting into key creative possibilities and practices:
First, the affordance landscape exceeds what is being enacted in a “simple” manner – there are all those practices that are directly possible and often done but not being done by someone right at this moment (say, walking one's bike, or riding on the sidewalk, or riding the wrong way down a street) – that's one-way things exceed what is being done.
But that is not that radical in the sense of being novel and different?
Definitely not, – but we could additionally use our bike to do some purpose that already exists (say opening a beer) but that our bike was never designed to do…
– This would be using an intended or even unintended aspect of our bike in a novel way to do something that is not novel at all…
That is correct. It is actually a conservative use of potential novelty.
There are countless examples of this – it is something we are doing all the time in everyday life.
It is a beautiful quality of everyday creative coping.
And it gets at how the affordances of things are never reducible to the designers intentions…
We saw this with the 3D printing we were doing during COVID – when we used plastic page dividers to make face shields – it was utilizing an unintended affordance of the clear plastic to hold a bend, crease, be punctured in unintended ways, etc. – these affordances were never considered explicitly by the designers of page dividers. But, ultimately, what we did with them was certainly not very radical – we were just using what was available to mimic some existing product.
No, you are correct there is little that is radical in this – If by radical we mean that it moves us towards a qualitatively new set of possibilities. It is just our everyday repurposing.
Yes, it is odd to see this called “radical” repurposing – when it takes some unintended affordance and bends it to mimic an existing product or existing purpose. We would prefer to reserve “radical” to be in relation to innovations that participate in the development of the qualitatively new.
That brings us to the third way we can understand how affordances can exceed intentions and purpose…
Yes – this is where things get more complicated and actually more radical. In any relation between an embodied skilled creature and aspects of the environment, it is always a possibility that some as yet not existent, but in general possible radically novel unintended affordances could emerge – and these always “haunt” our stable world.
If we, for example, change our bodies, our practices or our tools we can activate some set of novel relational opportunities for actions that have never been developed.
And this is where these discussions of affordances connect directly with the discussion of adaptation in evolution.
It does – but not directly to Darwin's logic of evolution – the logic of affordances, with its focus on the mutual co-shaping of agent and environmental niche, is part of the contemporary “extended evolutionary synthesis”. For while Darwin does mention in passing how environmental niches are shaped by organisms, he does not explore the full consequences of this.
– His main focus was on how an organism “adapts” to “fit” a pre-existing environmental niche?
Yes, which is not entirely wrong – hence the contemporary connection of the logic of niche construction with Darwin is termed an extended evolutionary synthesis. The emergence of affordances – the relation between the skilled activities of an embodied organism and context relevant aspects of the environment lead to changes in the environment. As Gary Tomlinson puts it “the exploitation of affordances by organisms must alter the balance of resources from which they are created… organisms thus change the horizon of possible environments that other organisms or future generations in their own lineage can create.”
We diagram this as the two outer loops of the affordance relation:
So, if we come back to our examples of how affordances exceed purpose – these uses of unintended aspects of something for known ends or the unintended theoretically potential possibilities and are what are called in evolutionary theories, Exaptations?
Yes, they are part of what is understood by the term exaptations.
But this concept is something that Darwin did develop?
Yes, absolutely – it plays a significant role in the sixth edition of On the Origin of Species. It is part of his response to Mivart’s criticisms.
Mivart has the famous criticism, “what is the use of half a wing?”
This is where he argues that Darwin is wrong because if a wing evolves for an end purpose (as Darwin implies in previous editions) – such as flight for example, then it must gradually evolve in a step by step fashion with each generation. Because of this incremental process, at some point, there will be a creature with half a wing that can neither run nor fly successfully. And such a creature would simply not survive! Mivart challenged Darwin – how could anything like a wing evolve in this manner – because what is the use of half a wing?
And Darwin's answer, in a brilliant argument, was that the wing did not evolve for flight, but it must have evolved for some other reason, and then the form was “co-opted” for flight. Features like wings, hands, and eyes, are not reducible to their purpose(s) – they are whatever they can do – whatever they can afford. And so Darwin argued that there does not need to be any form of plan or foreknowledge of what something could become for a radically new ability such as flight to emerge.
It is in this regard that it is quite unfortunate that he used the term “pre-adapted” to discuss this unintentional or non-selected-for quality of features. Because pre-adaptation can be confusing in that it still suggests that there is some form of pre-knowledge.
But, that aside – this is truly a radical concept – especially in regards to creativity, because it gives us today, in our own practices, a way to create genuinely novel possibilities without knowing in advance what will emerge. It allows us to both understand and develop methods that can go beyond what we know, what we can ideate, or even imagine.
Yes, it is hard to overstate how practically useful this can be for our creative practices.
So, are Darwin’s “pre-adaptations” – exaptations?
Yes, in the early 1980s Elizabeth Verba and Stephan J. Gould proposed a better term: exaptation – literally meaning to be outside of aptation — aptive, meaning a feature that affects the function of an organism in an environmental niche.
But, do Verba and Gould make this connection to affordances?
Because I can see how there is a clear connection to the idea of affordances via the feedback loop of niche construction.
Unfortunately, they do not. Gould develops the concept of “emergent fitness,” but it does not make a direct connection to Affordances. This important connection between an extended logic of affordances and exaptations is a more recent development that has happened over the last decade.
It is unfortunate that this has largely gone unnoticed by many outside of the overlapping fields of enaction and evolution.
Most definitely, but it is a very important and consequential evolution of the concept of exaptations. – And one that is really helpful in understanding and developing qualitatively new human innovations.
Which is a big part of why we have spent the last few newsletters explicating and developing the concept of affordance?
Yes, it is an exciting and powerful development. To see the connection clearly, it is helpful to connect the affordances and exaptation diagrammatically:
But, how can we distinguish between the various distinctions we have made between more and less radical novel affordances – or are they all the same?
This is where going back to start with Stephan Jay Gould’s last work, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, is really helpful.
That’s the one thousand-four hundred-page book – right? I don’t think many people are getting through that!
It is true – I remember a conversation with his friend, the artist Rosamund Purcell – and if I remember correctly, he died suddenly and unfortunately during the editing process – but all of this aside, after a thousand pages, in Chapter Eleven: Structural Constraints, Spandrels, and Exaptation he turns his attention in great detail to carefully defining the differing logics of exaptation.
What you mean by great detail is a section that is over eighty pages long – he has quite a bit to say about exaptations. It's long but manageable…
What is really great about Gould is you can see how he developed the concept from the initial definition with Elizabeth Verba to his work with Letontin to this final detailed reflection – We would encourage people to go back to this chapter – it is astonishingly rich – he is laying out what he terms the “taxonomy of the exaptive pool” in all of its variety and richness.
But, he also unfortunately develops a very eccentric language to describe this taxonomy of the exaptive pool – “franklins” and “miltons” – all to get at the difference between “inherent potentials” and “available things”... ?
Absolutely – it does add a layer of confusion, but we can parse this out. For example, what he calls “Inherent potentials” are all those things that allow for a functional shifts –
…like our face shields we made from clear plastic dividers, right?
These are the “alternate potential functions of objects being used in another way,” as he puts it. “In short they represent future potentials with structures now adapted to a different utility”...
And this is what most people are referencing with examples of opening beer bottles with a lighter, our face shields, etc. – but this is only one branch of the exaptive pool, right?
That is right, Gould goes to great lengths to stress that this is not what makes exaptations radical. It is the second category of “available things” that are far more creatively radical.
He introduces these by saying, “by important contrast, actual entities, pieces of stuff, material things that have become part of biological individuals for a variety of reasons, but have no current use… Items in this category… can originate in several ways – as non-adaptive “spandrels,” as previously useful structures that have become vestigial, or as neutral features fortuitously introduced “beneath” the notice of selection.”
And he means by “spandrels” – automatic physical side consequences.
Over the years, as part of doing many workshops on exaptations and working with organizations to utilize these logics, we have taken the time to carefully parse out the differing types of exaptations that Gould develops in his taxonomy and diagram them:
It is helpful to study this closely – we have a link at the end of the newsletter to larger PDFs of all of our diagrams and images – it might be helpful to print this out and annotate it.
So, where do the unintended beer bottle openers and face shields sit in this diagram?
These are (1) intentional features, that have (2) unintended effects that can (3) fulfill some different but existing purpose (see above).
So – all of these examples that have been called “radical repurposings” only occupy a small part of what Gould lays out as the pool of exaptations? And they are in no way exemplary of the whole field of exaptive potentials –
Yes – that is why it is useful to go back to the sources and really spend time to dig deeply into what they offer…
– But some of these re-purposings are a bit different – they are using unintended qualities of things – doesn’t that push things a bit further?
It does in some sense, as you can see in the above diagram – but in the end, in relation to actual development of qualitatively novelty possibilities – the “heart” of exaptation – there is very little…
It is kind of like we get to a giant buffet of creative techniques and possibilities – and we are only interested in a couple of them!
It is certainly surprising that this is the case when you see this larger spectrum of exaptive practices…
There is much more to explore in the pool of exaptations – but we write about this elsewhere – here is a good starting place for those interested.
It would be useful to maybe go into some other key aspects of understanding exaptations. One of the big misconceptions that we see is those who claim exaptation is essentially a one-step process – for example going from “feathers for temperature regulation or display and then these are repurposed for flight”.
That's the thing that Gould makes clear and has been really developed by others – flight did not occur via one exaptation – nothing occurs through one exaptation. And this makes sense if you just think about it – for bird flight to occur, multiple independent exaptation processes had to happen. Bones became hollow in an exaptation process from breathing mechanisms, for example. All the key features involved in flight were part of an exaptive process. And then feathers and wings themselves moved through multiple cascading exaptations from scales to sequester toxins…
And this is equally true of human innovation processes – they involve the emergent coordination of multiple exaptive processes.
So it would not be accurate to say that there is an exaptation – say the “repurposing” of feathers from thermo-regulation to fight – and then after this moment, an “adaptation process” takes over?
No – these are long dynamic and contingent processes – exaptive processes. Logically adaption cannot take over till some new mode of being emerges. But when the first dinosaur with feathers fell out of a tree and did not die – it was not suddenly on an adaptive journey to “flight”.
This carries important lessons for our forms of creativity – and how important it is to keep emergent novelty that does not serve any purpose from being pulled back into the known.
This is a big aspect – the systems that exaptive affordances are emerging in are constrained in ways that make certain outcomes more likely than others. And this pulls novelty back toward existing logics, practices, and purposes (see above diagram).
This is why we talk about “blocking” practices that, as an experiment, deliberately and structurally refuse existing purpose.
It is an important part of a designed exaptive affordance process that would allow one to co-emerge with the qualitatively novel and not just end up with new ways carrying out existing purposes…
Well, it has been great to discuss how creative practices entangle with exaptive affordances. It has made for a long newsletter – and we have only begun!
Perhaps we can end our conversation here and pick things up next week with a more detailed human example of this process?
Yes, it has been fun – let's do that and get into more details of Gould’s full taxonomy of the exaptive pool and how we can use this effectively to develop radical, qualitatively new modes of being.
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