894 Reading Notes: Ecology of the Mind and Affordances (Week 10)

Figure with brain depicted as a set of gears with a network of objects and concepts depicted above the figure's head
The mind is both within and beyond. Image from http://www.sharpermind.org/

This week’s readings had me going “hmmm” and “yes!” The “hmmm” was my primary reaction to Gregory Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of the Mind. Bateson’s text really challenged me, showing me the complexity of concepts that seem simple like “difference.” Ultimately what I took to be the most important concepts from his chapter was that the mind is both immanent and transcendent. I understand the immanent mind to refer to the actual biological brain and its processes and the transcendent brain to refer to our thoughts which can be extended beyond our physical bodies. He uses the example of a blind man with a stick to illustrate:

Suppose I am a blind man, and I use a stick. I go tap, tap, tap. Where do I start? Is my mental system bounded at the handle of the stick? Is it bounded by my skin? Does it start halfway up the stick? Does it start at the tip of the stick? But these are nonsense questions. The stick is a pathway along which transforms of difference are being transmitted. The way to deliminate the system is to draw the limiting line in such a way that you do not cut any of the pathways in ways which leave things inexplicable. (465)

The stick is both external to his body and part of his thinking process–it is both immanent and transcendent. In thinking about a modern example, I think we could consider smartphones. They are external to our brains; however, I know that having the smartphone, being able to look up and access information at all times shapes and changes my thinking process–whether this a good thing or a bad thing isn’t clear (it’s probably both).

Image of a smartphone with a cord plugged into a brain
Sometimes it’s as if our smartphones are plugged into our brains. Image from http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2014/12/29/smartphones-brain_n_6389836.html

My “yes!” reaction was to Gibson’s text. I see a lot of connections between Gibson’s notion of affordances and ANT, but this vocabulary just works better for me. I think the idea of afforances as both objective (they are always there) and subjective (we will see different uses depending on our identity and context) makes a lot of sense and offers a way to think about how we interact with objects in our spaces. Norman’s notion of perceived affordances focuses on this subjective understanding of affordance. I also think perceived affordances provides a helpful lens to look at the question I approached with ANT–do guns kill people or do people kill people? In this discussion, comparisons to other objects are often made to support the latter claim. People may ask something like, do we blame cars for drunk driving accidents? However, I think the notion of perceived affordances shows some of the fallacies of these types of comparisons. Guns have very few perceived affordances beyond shooting a bullet. It is this lack of various perceived affordances which leads to a stronger connection between guns and killing and other objects like a car which have far more perceived affordances. This notion of subjective perception of how objects function within action continues to widen the picture of our interaction with objects in producing actions.



Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an ecology of mind: Collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology. San Francisco: Chandler Pub. Co.

Gibson, J. J. (1986). The ecological approach to visual perception. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.
Norman, D. (n.d.). Affordances and design. Retrieved from http://www.jnd.org/dn.mss/affordances_and.html

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