Just about anything under the sun can function as a tool, for someone, or for something. Your iPhone, communal washing machine, favourite social media, airplane to a sunny destination, or chopping knife serve immediate functions that are instrumental to our well-being or even survival. Tools serve purposes, they allow us to get things done, be them big or small, and that’s why they are totally vital to us. Could you imagine a single day on earth without tools?
The funny thing about tools is that, at heart, they are just objects. Objects become tools only when some animal comes along and identifies a possible field of action to manipulate that object, and do something with it. The ability or capacity to immediately spot a potential use for an object is what you could call an ecological approach to objects. Animals interact with their environment constantly on the basis of perceiving the range of actions which their natural environment can offer them. James J. Gibson’s Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (1979) sees such perceived uses of the environment as “affordances”. Although Gibson portrays affordances as inherent to natural objects and independent of the needs of the perceiver, he also considers them as relational, resulting from the interaction between animals (yes, that includes humans) and their environment. Gibson’s ecological perspective, however, focuses more on the ecological dimension of perception than affordances per say. What interested Gibson seems to have been more on ecological perception than affordances per say (Kaptelinin and Nardi, 2012).
You could also say that the uses that people derive from objects actually depends as much on the person as on the object itself. Certainly, the more complex a technology gets, the more complex the relationship between animals and their environment. In fact, one needs to go beyond a simple model of animal-environment interaction to a three-way animal-tool-environment. If we take complex tools apart, one can discover the myriad of diverse components which make up a tool.
Kaptelinin and Nardi (2012) argue that the broad field of Human Computer Interaction has used (and abused) the notion of affordance to the point that one needs to reconsider the whole theoretical basis on which it rests. Gibson’s notion of affordance has had such an impact on research that it has been applied to all manner of fields where learning, design and use of objects is relevant (quite many fields). A simple search on Google Scholar (April 2016) reveals over 24,000 citations for Gibson’s seminal book Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Many senior professors around the academic globe may be envious to get anywhere near that count. By comparison, Funology: from usability to enjoyment, by MA Blythe, K Overbeeke, AF Monk, and PC Wright, a rather influential book in HCI, scores 457.
A good chunk of citations for Gibson’s book are, understandably so, in the Human Computer Interaction (HCI) field. However, Kaptelinin and Nardi view that tweaking or forever stretching the concept of affordance to cater for complex technological objects appropriated by humans in their daily lives runs counter to the actual ecological theory in which it was initially embedded. Since the concept makes sense from a purely ecological point of view, it is probably best to adopt a new theoretical basis that is more relevant for analysing and designing complex (i.e. more-than-basic, or a-bit-more-than-just-natural) technologies. Particularly, the notions of culture and of dynamic relationship between objects and humans is lacking from Gibson’s approach.
Because tools essentially mediate action between people and their environment, Kaptelinin and Nardi instead suggest a “mediated action perspective”.
Gibson, J. (1979) Ecological Approach to Visual Perception
Kaptelinin, V. and Nardi, B. (2013).