Welcome to Emerging Futures - Emerging Futures - Vol 96! Affordances - Leaving Mindsets to Gain Worlds...
Good morning constructed and constructing beings,
It has been another record breaking week of high temperatures, the smoke has also returned from the Canadian fires and additionally we have had a number of flash floods here on the Northwest edge of the Atlantic. Our colleague in Switzerland Micheal Von Kutzschenbach shared research with us showing the serious impacts of the climate crisis might be coming much sooner than we predicted.
It has been a full week for us – we just finished two back-to-back workshops on innovation and design. These are always exciting to run – we get to teach and workshop with a highly motivated group an embodied, intra-active and emergent approach to innovation. Participants leave with a very transformed sense of innovation processes and real skills, and we are also changed – learning from the group.
And suddenly it is Friday. Luckly, we’ve been working on today’s newsletter over the course of this and last week, and so while we do get up early Friday morning to finish it – it is not too crazy.
We’re also rapidly approaching our 100th newsletter. On Monday morning (July 17th) we’re going to share on LinkedIn how we plan to celebrate... keep on the lookout!
Now, as the sun rises, in the quiet interzone of the pre-dawn hours, the doors and windows open, the cat gets fed, the dog gets walked, coffee is made and the newsletter emerges as words find lives of their own.
Last week we began a review of what we have been digging into over the last month and a bit – affordances. This week we are completing this review. You could consider it “part two” of our review of affordances – or, equally, you could consider it a stand alone discussion of how creativity as practices links affordances to worlds and worldmaking and in doing so gives us a better way of considering habits and practices than as “mindsets” and worldviews.
As quick orientation to our exploration of Affordances:
“An Affordance is a relation between aspects of the soci-material environment and the embodied abilities of an agent that in the context of a form of life, that give rise to a set of possible actions.”
~ (Reitved, Denys, and Van Westen)
The affordance (#0) is the relation between the environment on the left (#1) and the agent on the right (#2).
And this relation “affords” specific possibilities for action (#3) – these are shown below, rising up from the affordance relation (#0).
All of this is happening within the context of a specific way of being alive (#4) – shown by the blue circle that wraps the diagram.
Affordances are what we sense, perceive, and interact with – it is the world around us – both the physical stuff of rocks, streets, and tools, as well as our bodies – our hands, feet, and back, and all of the immaterial conceptual things – words, images, thoughts, etc.
The world we have, what we sense and experience is not simply “out there” nor is it “in our heads” – rather it is a relation between our socially shaped and formed skills, habits practices – which are fully embodied and relevant aspects of the socio-material environment.
The world we experience is what “it” affords us – what it allows us to experience/do – and what “it” is – is an emergent outcome of us and our environment. And we and our environment are not just pre-given things but mutually co-shaping systems.
What does it mean to say “the world we experience is what it allows us to do”?
To speak of “doing” is to speak of action. What is critical to all of this is that action is at the center of life. We are always already underway doing meaningful things and part of larger collaborative actions. Nothing is not an activity – an action.
Perception is an activity. Thinking is an activity. Sensing is an activity.
Sensing is not something that happens between a skin cell and the brain. Perceiving is not something that happens between an eyeball and a brain. Thinking is not something that happens after all of this inside the head. And movement – activity is not something that happens after all of this.
We are always in motion – to sense we reach out with the specific bodies we have in the midst of action to grasp-percieve-think-do.
These actions are always connected to an activity – it is not that we are just moving our arm, all of our actions are part of some larger activity. Action and activities blur.
Thus when we say “affordances… give rise to the potential for certain activities” – these are not things that come after sensing perceiving and thinking. They are those activities.
How we act – our wholly embodied and intra-subjective movements, practices, habits that are intra-woven with specific aspects of the socially shaped environment give rise to further potential activities (what we sense, feel and experience).
This means that there is constructed/organized stability to what we sense, perceive and experience. Gilles Deleuze calls this a “regime of sensation”. And he connects this to the purpose of art. He argues that the purpose of art in general is not to express or depict a reality – whether subjective (in the head) or object (out there) – but rather the goal is to experimentally develop a new “regimes of sensation” – which is to say new ways of sensing, perceiving and being of a world – or: a new landscape of affordances.
In short, art, for Deleuze, helps us invent new percepts, and affects – what can be felt, seen, sensed and experienced by changing the organization of affordances.
For us, the term art can be far too limiting and puts the focus far too much on a profession and its history and practices. But we strongly believe that, broadly speaking, one of the most important and necessary practices of innovation is to shift our landscape of affordances – our potentials for action – which is to say – what we can potentially sense, perceive, and experience.
Innovation, to be innovative, must change our landscape of affordances.
We can only develop concepts like a “mind-set” or “world-view” because we assume incorrectly that the mind is separate and distinct from the body, the world, and ultimately from activity.
Mindset/Worldview takes a falsely internalized and purely brain-based “mind” and sees it as having a fixed outlook – or “view”. But the mind does not look “out” on the world forming subjective representations (view) of a distant external reality.
If by “mindset” we mean that our thinking has an implicit logic to it – then we are not talking about anything reducible to the historical dematerialized brain based idea of a “mind”.
The mental – thinking – in any and all of its forms, is an activity that is in and of an active body which is active in a specific environment with specific tools. Thinking is a worldly activity that gives rise to a landscape of affordances (a regime of sensation) which we directly experience as the potential for activity – more sensing, doing and thinking.
Evan Thompson makes an analogy to the problem of assuming that flight is “in” the bird wing. For flight, of course you need the wing, but you equally need the rest of the body, a specific type of atmosphere, practices and environment. Flight, like the mind, is not in any one of its necessary component parts, it is an emergent relation arising in a non-linear manner from the whole. And as such flight, like mind, is a property of the whole.
That our thinking has a pattern to it – an implicit logic – should not come as any surprise. Our life is patterned via an intra-woven set of intersubjective embodied habits, environmental regularities, tool usage, and conceptual systems. This organized logic is distributed across and held between the brain, body, habits, tools, other agents, concepts and environments.
Thinking (or “the mental”) as an activity (an embodied, embedded, extended activity) is in no way separate from our historical lived world – it is not ensconced in the skull pre-existing and determining outward activities. Like the dance and the dancer are co-determinate so is thinking and life.
To say someone possesses a fixed or open mindset that shapes how they see the world – is to make three significant errors. First, it internalizes and localizes what is properly the emergent property of a system, secondly, it makes them individually responsible for a social reality, and thirdly it treats the outcome of an emergent process as the origin of a linear process.
We should be paying more attention to the generative conditions that lead to patterns and regularities that give rise to a specific set of potential activities (ways of sensing, seeing, thinking and doing). And – equally importantly, perhaps we should be experimentally focused on the multi-scalar and multi-modal processes that can lead to the emergence of new patterns and regularities in life (a new aesthetic regime of the senses).
Here is a simple example from Edwin Hutchins: when we are in a group, how do we think, know and keep track of who arrived when? One way we do this is by standing in a queue. The physical environment provides anchoring points for “first” and the ordering of people. Which joins together with physical habits of how we stand, etc. and the world becomes both its own conceptual model and tool for asking and answering questions such as “how long do it need to wait?” Here we don’t have a “mental model” of say “fairness” and how to achieve fairness, rather “the world is its own model” as Rodney Brooks puts it. The “mindset” or “worldview” of a specific idea of taking turns, fairness, social order etc – it is not “in” the head – it is enacted spatially as an active practice of embodied distributed environmentally emergent thinking.
While queuing as an activity can be quite astonishingly rich in how it blends the conceptual and the physical to form an active system of everyday distributed cognition – it is by no means the most complex.
Hutchins, goes on to show using examples from children's games, to ship navigation to jazz concerts that all thinking (cognition) in the wild – outside the lab – is “distributed cognition”. Brains and bodies synchronize with each other via the transformative use of tools, spaces, rituals and other affordance landscapes in sustained intra-active manners that give rise to cognitively rich practices that are irreducible to any one component of the system.
When we carefully and anthropologically look at how we enact “mental” models, thinking practices, concepts etc. we come to see how much they are worldly distributed practices – how little “mental” there is in mental models, mindsets, and worldviews.
Changing cognitive models and patterns of thinking (which is a distributed activity) is not about changing things “in the head” but collectively enacting new environmentally embedded and materially extended practices that will afford new and different potentials for action (which is always a form of cognition).
They do not exist if by a mindset or worldview we mean a clear and distinct set of tightly integrated mental concepts that are separate from practices and give rise to practices.
When we talk about implicit mental models – we have to remember that most of our knowledge is implicit – but not in our heads as a type of clear conceptual knowledge: “know-what” – but rather it is a “knowhow” – our skilled ability to do things. And this now-how cannot be abstracted out of the relations between our bodies, tools, practices and environments. This integrated set of practices (this regime) affords a set of almost wholly non-conceptual practices. And it is a serious mistake to falsy simplify this to a “mindset”.
First, and perhaps most importantly, it is not a linear model that imagines we can track something back to a single source like the mind or brain.
The key question for innovation is to always ask: what gives rise to – what is actually creating these stabilities in our activities of sensing, perceiving, doing and thinking?
Our activities – what we experience, sense, perceive, etc. arises from the middle of an emergent co-determining and co-creating process.
It is not one thing. In a very real sense nothing other than the process itself is “foundational”. And the affordance approach keeps us focused on the middle where a specific agency is afforded and change be changed.
What is different is that by starting in the middle we can actually experimentally understand and change the distributed dynamics of an emergent system towards novel ways of being alive.
As a culture we have been long fixated on tracing everything back to a single source that is the cause of it all – whether that be a god, our genes, how our brain is organized or something else. And in regards to this we cannot say it better than Evan Thompson:
“In the context of contemporary science… “nature” [reality] does not consist of basic particulars [things], but fields and processes… There is no bottom level of base particulars with intrinsic properties that upwardly determines everything else. Everything is process all the way “down” and all the way “up”...
“…these processes are “irreducibly relational — they exist only in patterns, networks, organizations, configurations or webs… Phenomena at all scales are not entities or substances but relatively stable [relational] processes…”
“...since processes achieve stability at different levels of complexity, while still interacting with processes at other levels, all are equally real and none has absolute ontological primacy.”…” (Evan Thompson, Mind in Life, p. 440)
Things when they come together in a relation dominant manner act in a non-linear way such that the “whole” is both more than the sum of the parts and quite different. This emergent whole that is the outcome of the system has the agency to shape that system that gave rise to it. Such that one could say:
Yes, the emergent “whole” is like a “world”. What is critically important is that the whole/world in shaping its parts leads the whole system to have a direction – a propensity. Where it tends more in certain directions over others in a self reinforcing manner.
So, in some sense the whole has an “identity”, logic and a direction?
When things come together in a relation dominant manner that is not easily decomposable there is a propensity, logic, style and even form of lose identity that emerges.
This is what could be called a “world view” – the “mentality” of the system. But, given how dynamic things can be, and how situated things are, this is nothing like a fixed identity – an essence. Nor is it something that anyone in the system would possess. It is an overall quality of the system.
Because of irreducibly relational nature of fields and processes, we like to talk about processes of making and what they afford and how this feeds back into the process of sensemaking and worldmaking
A world is made. Sense is made.
Creativity and innovation are about how we live – how we are alive. And how this mundane and ongoing collective activity is in itself creative. We are making – creating – in an intra-subective and distributed environmental fashion what we experience.
Making – activity never stops.
And this collaborative, distributed more-than-making is a creating. It is an ongoing creative process.
And what is happening in the ongoing creative making – what is being “made” so to speak, is what is afforded us.
In regards to sensemaking we need to here the multiple resonances of the word:
And in all of these “sense” should carry a deeply embodied, and enactive quality to it. Sensing and sense is affective, proprioceptive, relational and distributed.
An integrated set of co-constructed sensemaking practices and their multiple landscapes of affordances are a world. We see this in the multiple means listed above of sensemaking. We are always participating in the cocreating/affording of a particular way of being alive – a world.
Precisely, say in the example of the crowd forming a line – no person in the crowd necessarily possesses anything like the blueprint for the behavior. No one is leading the crowd. But the relation dominant behavior is both tending more into certain actions over others (the propensity of what is afforded), and it is shaping the sense of each of the participants. The system is constrained into a direction of what is afforded.
But if you took any one person out of the crowd and you interviewed them you would not find some deep essence of “line-up” behavior. But rather they participate in a worldmaking – an specific ongoing creative mainly implicit embodied and environmentally grounded sensemaking regime.
This is the astonishing thing, as long as certain conditions are met – the system perpetuates itself. It is what Deleuze called an “Abstract Machine” – it is not a machine in the sense of a steam engine – it is just a set of conditions (abstract) being met such that the specific dynamic system (the “machine”) self perpetuates and keeps “manufacturing” or producing its own conditions.
This infrastructure that is self reproducing and works at the level of a society is what Foucault termed a Dispositive (the french word for “apparatus”).
Much of an organization's behavior is an outcome of these logics.
And just like a crowd or a culture – these stable behaviors are the outcome of the relational dynamics and what they afford. What is perceived, and experience emerge from this landscape of affordances.
These emergent landscapes of affordances, and behaviors cannot be attributed directly to any person and any set of top-down directives coming from the C suite.
All forms of engagement whether they be directives or nudges and structural changes – they are creatively mediated and modulated by the relational dynamics of the system.
And even at the smallest of scales there is an organization of multiple activities (a taskscape) that can have a “mind of its own”...
Sensing how the embodied abilities of an agent – like ourselves – that is an active participant in way of being alive, and in an active relation with aspects of the soci-material environment is afforded a unique set of possible actions – actions that constitute our most basic forms of sensing, perceiving, doing and thinking changes everything about how we approach creativity and innovation.
Be believe that with an affordance informed approach we have a far richer and nuanced sense of agency and the creative agency of our world. We can become great collaborators who recognize that others matter, that our bodies, tools and environments matter. With affordances we come to know that the world is both real and constructed and we come to care for how it is co-constructed and how it can be collaboratively constructed differently.
An affordance informed approach gives us a way of actively belonging to the middle and living the dance of what is afforded and enacted in the dance – the path is made in the walking.
Writing these words at the end of this week is, for us, a great feeling. For, we just spent a wonderful intense week exploring and enacting this in a workshop setting.
We hope that you will have time to enact new creative regimes of affordances that involve relaxation, rejuvenation and joyous curiosity this weekend – and if you are in Japan please tell us about what Miyazaki’s final film was like for you!
🧨 P.S.: We facilitate workshops and the accolades are overwhelming.
❤️ P.P.S.: Love this newsletter? We'd be grateful if you heap a bit of praise in the comments
🏆: P.P.P.S: Find the newsletter valuable? Please share it with your network
🙈 P.P.P.P.S: Hit reply - feedback of any kind is welcome
🏞 P.P.P.P.P.S.: This week's drawings in Hi-Resolution
📚 P.P.P.P.P.P.S.: Go deeper - Check out our book which is getting great feedback like this: