More Than Just Design: Affordances as Embodying Value in Technological Artifacts

by Fabio Tollon

It is natural to assume that technological artifacts have instrumental value. That is, the value of given technology lies in the various ways in which we can use it, no more, and no less. For example, the value of a hammer lies in our ability to make use of it to hit nails into things. Cars are valuable insofar as we can use them to get from A to B with the bare minimum of physical exertion. This way of viewing technology has immense intuitive appeal, but I think it is ultimately unconvincing. More specifically, I want to argue that technological artifacts are capable of embodying value. Some argue that this value is to be accounted for in terms of the designed properties of the artifact, but I will take a different approach. I will suggest that artifacts can come to embody values based on their affordances.

Before doing so, however, I need to convince you that the instrumental view of technology is wrong. While some technological artifacts are perhaps merely instrumentally valuable, there are others that are clearly not so There are two ways to see this. First, just reflect on all the ways which technologies are just tools waiting to be used by us but are rather mediators in our experience of reality. Technological artifacts are no longer simply “out there” waiting to be used but are rather part of who we are (or at least, who we are becoming). Wearable technology (such as fitness trackers or smart watches) provides us with a stream of biometric information. This information changes the way in which we experience ourselves and the world around us. Bombarded with this information, we might use such technology to peer pressure ourselves into exercising (Apple allows you to get updates, beamed directly to your watch, of when your friends exercise. It is an open question whether this will encourage resentment from those who see their friends have run a marathon while they spent the day on the couch eating Ritter Sport.), or we might use it to stay up to date with the latest news (by enabling smart notifications). In either case, the point is that these technologies do not merely disclose the world “as it is” to us, but rather open up new aspects of the world, and thus come to mediate our experiences.

Second, we might look at the design of technological artifacts. For example, consider speedbumps. Speedbumps could be said to embody the value of safety, as they force cars to slow down in order to ensure reasonable driving speeds. It is not just that speedbumps are instrumentally useful (i.e., that they are effective means of achieving safety) but rather that safety is an essential part of their function. They are intentionally designed to embody the value of safety. Contrast this with a knife: the function of a knife is to cut things. Such cuttings may be instrumentally valuable, for example, the maintenance of good health, well-being, etc. However, and significantly, the realisation of these final values is not part of the function of knives nor are these values to be found in the design specification of knives in general. The final value of the knife, therefore, can be separated from its functional value. In the case of speedbumps, however, their final and functional values cannot be decoupled. Let us call this the intentional account of value embedding.

Previously I argued that a focus on designed properties could be a philosophically fruitful means of evaluating value embedding in technological artifacts. However, in a recent paper I argue that such accounts have two shortcomings, and thus propose we make use of an affordance account of value embedding.

The first issue is metaphysical. Specifically, it concerns the disconnect between the actual use of an artifact and its designed use. That is, designers may aim to embed a specific value in an artifact, but this value may not be realized in practice as people might appropriate the technology and use it in ways that the designers did not intend. This “fixes” the value of any technological artifact at its “birth”, which closes the door for these values to change over time. As we cannot spool back the reel and change the intentional history associated with an artifact, sticking to the intentional account means value change is impossible. Additionally, if designer intentions are what really matter in value embedding, then why talk of technology embodying value at all? It seems that the value resides in the head of the designers, and what they intend for the technology. This raises epistemic issues.

Such epistemic issues concern the problems we encounter when attempting to figure the content of designer intentions. We are closed from directly observing these intentions, as we cannot put people in brain scanners and figure out what they intended with a given design (and even if we could, throwing people in brain scanners isn’t always the best way to explain what’s going on in their minds). Notwithstanding this issue, it does seem we have reliable access to indirect mechanisms for identifying designer intentions. We can look at documentation of the design process or ask designers what their intentions were. However, as Michael Klenk argues this problem is not merely practical:

“Suppose that a designer documents her intentions for some prototype P. A reproducer then reproduces the prototype so that P’s functional properties are kept constant. At the same time, the reproducer intends very different things for his replicas of P and also documents these intentions. As a result, there will be physically indistinguishable instances or replicas of P with very different intentional histories.”

In such a situation, the intentional account does not provide a mechanism for deciding on which intentions to “count” more than others, creating epistemic uncertainty.

Considering these issues, I suggest we look towards the literature on affordances, borrowed from ecological psychology, as a more philosophically successful means for illuminating the ways in which artifacts embody values. On this account artifacts can be said to embody values if they enable valuable actions. What an artifact affords are the possibilities for action that it enables. Not all affordances, however, are created equal. For example, a chair may afford sitting to an adult human, but it may only afford shelter to an animal. This brings to light the centrality of perception in any discussion of affordances. Specifically, that the affordances that will be perceived in a given environment depend on the kind of entity perceiving them. Affordances are thus response-dependent and enable or enhance the chances of an action coming about.

I argue that we should understand affordances based on whether they are meaningful or not, and second, that we grade them based on their force. For an affordance to be meaningful implies that it is somehow related to the concerns or values of an agent. “Merely relevant” affordances, however, would have a more impoverished phenomenology due to their not being related to the agents concerns or values. For example, imagine coming across a cardboard box in the street. If you are the kind of agent who values sustainability and are environmentally conscious, the box might afford recycling. However, an agent who did not share these concerns might experience the box as “merely” affording being thrown away or being picked up.

Secondly, we can grade affordances based on their force. That is, how “demanding” or “inviting” they are. For example, an AK-47 and a handgun both afford the use of lethal force. However, the AK-47 is far more inviting in this regard, given that it is explicitly designed to be as lethal (and durable) as possible, whereas a small handgun could be seen as simply being designed for self-defense.

This discussion brings into relief the role that behavioural sciences can come to play in the design of artifacts. There are reliable ways in which we fail to reason correctly about the world, and successful intervention in these cases can be used to promote socially desirable outcomes. For example, switching to opt-out (as opposed to opt-in) retirement plans in the UK resulted in a 37% increase in eligible private sector worker participation. The affordance account of value embedding thus makes salient how the psychological machinery that agents such as ourselves possess and our subsequent interaction with technical artifacts can come to realize different values in practice. Of course, this also has its downsides, as poorly thought-out design can result in systems embodying harmful social values, such as recommender systems promoting epistemically problematic content.

We are thus left in an interesting position where the design of our artifacts does not necessarily determine the values they come to embody. Rather, what we seem to have is a dance between designed properties and the ways in which they are perceived and acted upon. Acknowledging this can aid us in more thoughtful design and sheds more light on the ethical consequences of technological artifacts.