The Social Affordance Of Everyday Things

I’ve had the same joke conversation with people twice now: “How did we ever get around before Google/iPhones?” I know that they’re kidding, and yet I can’t help myself but answer “Maps! We had maps, guys. Remember those? They were great.”

OK, so I admit to having a soft spot for maps. I drive André crazy because, even though we own a GPS to guide us, whenever we take a road trip, I like to have a map with me to follow where we are. The GPS is great to tell you exactly where you are and what route you should be taking to get to your destination. The map, on the other hand, is a wonderful tool to give you an overview, a general sense of where you are, and ideas on where you might want to go. This is especially useful when you’re on vacation and you are open to improvisations in your schedule.

After that conversation, I was thinking about ye olden days, when we only had maps to guide us, and how that had an impact on our social behaviours. An open map is easy to recognize and a clear indicator that the person is lost or unsure of where they should be going. It has a social affordance that the person is in need of help, and I have been on both the receiving side and the giving side of that help. This is a great way to start a conversation with a tourist, to help them find their way and give them extra ideas on where they should go.

But somebody who is thumbing through their iPhone, well, they might be reading their email or checking the stock market for all you know. You have no idea if they need help. On the other hand, maybe if you have access to a Google map on your smartphone that pinpoints exactly where you are and where you are going, maybe if you can do a search on “what’s hot in the city”, maybe you don’t need other people’s help. It’s a pity, though. After all, we are social animals and we thrive on social contact.

I had similar thoughts while coming back home on the train. I brought André’s Kindle with me to read L’ile mystérieuse (*). André has covered his Kindle in a Hitchhiker Guide’s themed gelskin, so whenever we use the Kindle, we look like huge dorks (okay, we are both huge dorks, so I guess that’s truth in advertising). I walked down the wagon at one point and saw several people reading physical books. It was an interesting contrast. I could see immediately what they were reading and how far along they were in the book. There was one guy who was reading a book on advertising that looked like it was either an art book or a critique of advertising. If I had been seated next to him, I think I would have asked him what the book was about and whether it was interesting. It looked like an interesting book. Here it was the book’s art cover that was offering a social affordance for the start of a conversation.

I’m not advocating that we all give up our electronic gadgets and go back to the stone age. But I think that maybe the people who design and build these gadgets need to think about how they could incorporate the original social affordances into the gadgets. Why couldn’t the back of my eReader display (if I so choose) the title and art cover of the book I’m reading? Maybe I could have an electronic map that I could “unfold” (project?). I think we should think about these things a bit more than we do now.

(*) Do not read adored children’s books when you are an adult lest you be sorely disappointed by how silly they turn out to be.

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