Home » Posts tagged 'affordance'

Tag Archives: affordance


Self Tracking
Venture Labor
Surviving the New Economy

Agency in the Digital Age

Recent advancements in technology challenge our fundamental notions of human power and agency. Tools and techniques including machine learning, artificial intelligence, and chatbots may be capable of exercising complex “agentic” behaviors (Dhar, 2016). Advanced technologies are capable of communicating with human beings in an increasingly sophisticated manner. Ranging from artificial chat partners through the commercial algorithms of social media to cutting-edge robots, these encounters with interactive machines often result in a complex and intimate relationship between users and technologies (Finn, 2017). For instance, people now may have their own virtual assistants such as Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa. Other commercial technological agents “help” people find new movies on Netflix or friends on Facebook. Robotic companions, like Huggable developed by Cynthia Lynn Breazeal at MIT, can read human emotions and react to them accordingly. Chatbots have long evoked reactions from people that can be used therapeutically for psychological counselling and now these tools are being rolled out as apps to help people cope with anxiety and depression (Lien, 2017; Neff and Nagy, 2016). Such developments present a quandary for scholars of communication. Does the agency of the people and, increasingly, of things that we chose to communicate with matter? This question prompts us to urge communication scholars to develop a better definition of agency and more clarity on how agency is enacted in practice within complex, technologically-mediated interactions.

  • Neff, Gina & Nagy, Peter. “Agency in the Digital Age: Using Symbiotic Agency to Explain Human–Technology Interaction” in Zizi Papacharissi, ed. The Networked SelfHuman Augmentics, Artificial Intelligence, Sentience. Routledge. 

Talking to Bots: Symbiotic Agency and the Case of Tay

In 2016, Microsoft launched Tay, an experimental artificial intelligence chat bot. Learning from interactions with Twitter users, Tay was shut down after one day because of its obscene and inflammatory tweets. This article uses the case of Tay to re-examine theories of agency. How did users view the personality and actions of an artificial intelligence chat bot when interacting with Tay on Twitter? Using phenomenological research methods and pragmatic approaches to agency, we look at what people said about Tay to study how they imagine and interact with emerging technologies and to show the limitations of our current theories of agency for describing communication in these settings. We show how different qualities of agency, different expectations for technologies, and different capacities for affordance emerge in the interactions between people and artificial intelligence. We argue that a perspective of “symbiotic agency”— informed by the imagined affordances of emerging technology—is required to really understand the collapse of Tay.

Neff, Gina, and Peter Nagy. “Talking to Bots: Symbiotic Agency and the Case of Tay.” Edited by Samuel Woolley and Philip N. Howard. International Journal of Communication 10, no. Special Issue (2016): 20.

Download this article directly.

Imagined Affordance: Reconstructing a Keyword for Communication Theory

In this essay, we reconstruct a keyword for communication—affordance. Affordance, adopted from ecological psychology, is now widely used in technology studies, yet the term lacks a clear definition. This is especially problematic for scholars grappling with how to theorize the relationship between technology and sociality for complex socio-technical systems such as machine-learning algorithms, pervasive computing, the Internet of Things, and other such “smart” innovations. Within technology studies, emerging theories of materiality, affect, and mediation all necessitate a richer and more nuanced definition for affordance than the field currently uses. To solve this, we develop the concept of imagined affordance. Imagined affordances emerge between users’ perceptions, attitudes, and expectations; between the materiality and functionality of technologies; and between the intentions and perceptions of designers. We use imagined affordance to evoke the importance of imagination in affordances—expectations for technology that are not fully realized in conscious, rational knowledge. We also use imagined affordance to distinguish our process-oriented, socio-technical definition of affordance from the “imagined” consensus of the field around a flimsier use of the term. We also use it in order to better capture the importance of mediation, materiality, and affect. We suggest that imagined affordance helps to theorize the duality of materiality and communication technology: namely, that people shape their media environments, perceive them, and have agency within them because of imagined affordances.

Peter Nagy and Gina Neff. 2015. “Imagined Affordance: Reconstructing a Keyword for Communication Theory,” Social Media + Society, July-December 2015: 1–9. DOI: 10.1177/2056305115603385

Twitter: ginasue