D. E. Wittkower: On Disaffordances and Dysaffordances

Bruno Gransche: Unnecessary and not impossible - Critique and design as the drivers, challenges, and consequences of accidence

Research Seminar Double Bill
Tuesday 10 April 2018, 13.15-15.00
Red room


D. E. Wittkower
"On Disaffordances and Dysaffordances"

Despite the still-tempting myth of technological neutrality, examples of technologies with political effects surround us, and their politics are better and better recognized-from the racist Band-Aid or "flesh colored" crayon, to the sexism of "girls" and "boys" toys, to the enforcement of ethic and gender categories in data entry fields. Research on the politics of technology is also longstanding and ongoing, from Langdon Winner's 1980 "Do artifacts have politics" to Safiya Umoja Noble's just-published Algorithms of Oppression.

This presentation seeks to support research on the politics of technology by framing a theory of disaffordances and dysaffordances. I argue that a systematic theory is necessary to clarify when technologies pass from being merely inconvenient or badly designed to being discriminatory, and present a couple of ways of getting at that distinction through extensions to affordance theory. While this work is directed toward supporting research with new theory, the talk will not be technical, and will address a series of lively examples, including racist webcams, sexist baby strollers, religious discrimination in calendars, and sexist thermostat settings.


Bruno Gransche
"Unnecessary and not impossible - Critique and design as the drivers, challenges, and consequences of accidence"

The impossible, the possible, and the necessary are three modal domains. If one wants to learn about worldviews, ambition, skills, or self-efficacy of others, it pays off to analyze how they classify entities with regard to these domains. The extension of each domain varies historically, ideologically, and individually but the extension of the possible is the only one in which decisions and actions matter. The impossible and the necessary cannot be altered by actors. The possible can. Challenging these definitions is an act of modal criticism and a prerequisite to the shaping of futures.

Throughout the history of philosophy, the entities belonging to these modal domains underwent significant changes: Aristotelian ontology differentiates between inalterable substances that inhere essential attributes and nonessential accidents; Descartes opposed the two substances res cogitans and res extensa; empiricism and sensualism foster experience and perception as epistemologically primary to substance; Kant positioned substance as the hypothetical persisting rest within the changes of perceptible qualities; phenomenology emphasized the givenness of the world for a consciousness and so on. These drifts predominantly follow one direction: from the eternal towards the alterable, from the impossible and necessary towards the possible.

For the therefore increasingly growing domain of the "unnecessary and possible" I propose the term accidence. The histories of philosophy, of sciences in general, and of technological "progress" show an expansion of accidence. Criticizing the respective definitions of the necessary and the impossible is one driver of this expansion. Actual attempts to shape and design the newly possible informs the observer about the hypothetically possible and the actually possible subdomains.

Critique and design, technological and social progress expand the accidence domain. I will discuss this dynamic as well as its effects and challenges. If almost everything can be potentially different - what follows from that: a wider future or no future at all?