Necessity and affordances: the things that make us “tech”

There are things that make us tick when it comes to choosing the devices that we include in our lives. The criteria, if you will, which we apply when deciding whether to add yet another machine to the long list of appliances that we already have to learn to use and keep track of. I am sure there is a whole typography of criteria that exists in the literature, but my musings have produced two which seem to stand out: necessity, and affordances. These feature so significantly as themes in discussions about device choices that they are almost like two paradigms of selection processes.

The example that comes to mind is one that occupied a lot of my time in the last few months- choosing a phone. According to the necessity paradigm, one chooses the type of phone one needs, based on one’s current lifestyle. So let’s say you have been using a POFCP (Plain Old Fashioned Cell Phone). You check your e-mail once a day on your computer, and if you receive an e-mail while you’re out and about, it’s too bad- it will have to wait till you’re back in front of your computer. You’re quite happy with this lifestyle. So when someone suggests you get a smartphone, the first question that comes to mind is: “Do I need a smartphone?” You ask yourself if, given your lifestyle, the smartphone is a necessity. After all, you have that time in front of your computer, no one’s life depends on your responding immediately to an e-mail, and so what if you have no idea what all your friends are up to on your Facebook page until you find the time to login? Within the necessity paradigm, the choice seems clear. No smartphone.

Enter the affordances paradigm: it’s not so much whether you need the smartphone, but what the smartphone can do for you. While the necessity paradigm involves fitting the device with the lifestyle, the affordances paradigm upgrades the lifestyle to match the features that the device offers. So the question here is: “What does this smartphone allow me to do?” You examine the device. It allows you to receive and respond to e-mail on the go, thus freeing you from the need to sit in front of the computer for a set length of time everyday. You realise that you don’t have to save up all your observations on life and your surroundings. You can access Twitter or Facebook from your smartphone the moment your little epiphanies strike. Sure, you didn’t tweet much before. But now you CAN. And therefore you WILL. Within the affordances paradigm, the choice leans towards the purchase of the device.

It’s not just with phones that these paradigms apply. It seems logical that they potentially accompany any sort of game-changing, cheese-moving innovation. When fridges were first invented, it’s possible that there were some people who thought it was not necessary to buy one. After all, they could go to the market everyday to buy fresh vegetables and meat, they could cook just enough so that there was no excess food to store, and in some countries water was kept in special earthenware pots to keep it cool even in the summer. But as fridges came to pervade the modern lifestyle, their affordances must have come to the forefront. Why shop everyday when you can do it once a week and still have fresh food? Why worry about avoiding leftovers and cooking everyday when you can freeze cooked food and heat it up for dinner the following day?

And so as smartphones move towards near ubiquity, it is likely that more and more people will switch over to the affordances paradigm, and thus doom the POFCP to obsolescence. It is perhaps also likely that this post is two years too late!

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