Dialectics of Affordances: Stuart Hall and the Future of New Media Studies

During ICA’s 2015 Preconference titled “Stuart Hall and the Future of Media and Cultural Studies,”* I gave a talk exploring the intersections of Hall’s Encoding/Decoding model and the notion of affordances as used in new/emergent media studies. An edited version of the talk is below along with images from some slides, but as this is still a work in progress I welcome and comments, critiques, etc. I know a lot of CD contributors and readers are working on similar issues, so feel free to link back to your own posts/articles in the comments as well!


The goal of this preconference, and this talk, are to push media and communication scholars to think about new ways of using Stuart Hall’s work so we might produce better, more critical, and potentially transformative media and communication scholarship. I posit that a good place to start is something that is so imbricated with ideas of futureness that too often scholars fail to really reach back into existing theory to understand it: New Media. Also sometimes called emergent or digital media, new media are often described as a constellation of technologies that are supposedly uniquely social, mobile, and interactive. This can entail a wide array of channels, platforms, technologies, and media, and for the purposes of this talk I’m going to try to talk about them in the broadest terms possible. Specifically, I’d like to think through how the Encoding/Decoding (Hall, 1997 [1973]) model might be adapted to think more critically about the ideologies embedded into new media technologies and “the dialectic of cultural struggle” (Hall, 1998 [1981], p. 447) that plays out in how they are used.

In the interest of time (now space), I am just going to focus on how we might use Hall’s work to rethink how affordances are used in communication technologies studies. Affordances as a concept originally comes from cognitive psychology and James Gibson (2015 [1979]). He was primarily interested in investigating what stages people learn to use what he called “action possibilities” of their environment. In the late 1980s, however, Donald Norman (1988) brought the term into human-machine interaction and added a design twist on Gibson’s original theory. Norman felt that Gibson assumed there were too many open possibilities in how objects in the environment could be used. The original theory didn’t take into account the way objects themselves encouraged some sorts of uses over others. His was an ecological approach, which could easily swing us into actor-network theory territory…but I won’t go there right now. Later William Gaver (1991) extended Norman’s approach to explain three different types of affordances: Perceptible, Hidden, and False. Perceptible affordances are, put bluntly, that objects do what it looks like they should be able to do. Hidden affordances are uses that are not apparent, while false affordances are those uses objects look like they should be able to do but don’t.

Affordances have nearly become a buzzword in communication technology studies, not because it’s a new idea but because they helped solve a problem in how the impact of these technologies was being described. Like the hypodermic needle model of media effects, pure technological determinism might be a bit of a straw man against with more nuanced theories of technology and culture are framed (Lubken, 2008). Still we have all heard people speak anecdotally of the way technology affects our culture, regardless of whether they are describing this has an inherently good or inherently bad thing. This kind of language usually positions technology outside of culture ignoring the way technologies exist and are developed within social structures, as Raymond Williams (2003 [1972]) describes. This sort of framing, recalls Hall’s discussion in “Notes on Deconstructing ‘the Popular’” of how “popular culture” is often described as affected by external dominant forces: “Popular culture is neither, in the ‘pure’ sense, the popular traditions of resistance to these processes; nor is it the forms which are superimposed on and over them. It is the ground on which the transformations are worked” (1998 [1981], p. 443). Or, if we swap out a few words “[Culture] is neither, in the ‘pure’ sense, the popular traditions of resistance to [technology].” Rather, Hall argues, “In the study of popular culture we should always start here: with the double stake in popular culture, the double movement of containment and resistance, which is always inevitably inside it” (1998 [1981], p. 443). In contrast to that linear approach described above, some scholars, who study everything from early computer history to augmented reality technologies, look at the way technology and culture are in dialogue with one another. Or really, the way they are imbricated together.

There are parallels here between how communication technologies and audience reception have been studied. The linearity of cause and effect of technological determinism or direct media effect theories and neo-Marxist Frankfurt School models belies the lived complexity of hegemonic systems. Like audience reception before it, new media studies needs is its Encoding/Decoding moment. But I don’t think affordances theory, as it is often used, quite gets us there. At its core it has become much more about design than about power. But I think in the space between Hall’s model and affordances, there is something valuable.


To adequately deploy Encoding/Decoding on new media, however, requires some tweaking of Hall’s model. Specifically, we need to find a way to understand the power differentials involved, while acknowledging the fact that the distinction between the production process and the act of reception in Encoding/Decoding does not adequately capture the interactivity of new media texts. As Axel Bruns (2008) explores, collaborative creation communities blur the previously held distinctions between producers and users of content. These phenomena are distinct in some ways from the active audiences discussed in earlier studies, not simply because the tools of production and distribution are more readily available, but because media industries cultivate this activity. Bruns, for example, explores the myriad ways commercial industries approach the “hive” of produser content (p. 32). Audience activity with digital media does not simply demonstrate the resistive agency of audience members that it may have implied in previous eras. Activity in much of digital, contemporary media is largely a requirement for using these media. A video game, for example, simply cannot function without a measure of activity and involvement, beyond that which is required in other media. This makes video games activities as much as they are texts. The interactive properties of the texts, however, do not define the experience of game play. Understanding their reception, thus, must interrogate what actions these texts invite as well as how players actually use them.

And to do that (!) we need to start with an affordances perspective. All interactive media technologies can be looked at in terms of what they allow users/audience to do. What types of uses to they lend themselves to? What types of interaction do they encourage? But drawing upon Hall it is not enough to pretend like these devices are ideologically neutral in what types of interaction they allow or disallow. We can look at what uses (and users) are encoded into the design of interactive objects/texts. We also need to look at how they are then decoded, or what emergent uses we see when they are in the hands of users themselves. As Hall notes, of course, “the codes of encoding and decoding may not be perfectly symmetrical” (1997 [1973], p. 93). Later he says: “What are called distortions or misunderstandings arise precisely from the lack of equivalence between the two sides in the communication exchange” (p. 94). Translated to new media objects, misuses of technology are often framed as failures particularly when committed by people who are seen to be “marginal.” We might, via Hall, reclaim those “misuses” as not a fault, but an emergent use that is influenced by a particular subject position.


Building on this, how might we adapt Hall’s three reading positions (dominant/hegemonic, negotiated, and oppositional) to interactive media? Not to interpretations of the texts (though that can be done as well) but rather to potential activities with new media texts, objects, and forms. One way to think about this is in relation to affordances. A dominant/hegemonic use, would likely be using an object for its perceptible affordances. An oppositional use, might take advantage of hidden affordances, or even attempt to turn false affordances into actual affordances. We might even imagine passivity in using interactive media as a potentially oppositional use of the text. And like negotiated readings, negotiated uses might fall somewhere in between perceptible and hidden affordances.


What I like about this approach, is that it allows us to talk with a bit more nuance about two subjects in games (focusing on my own area of study for a moment) that are often seen as potentially oppositional but are sometimes built in affordances to digital texts: Cheating and Modding.

Cheating, as Mia Consalvo (2007) explores, may be viewed by some as an oppositional form of game engagement. But it is not inherently oppositional, as some cheats are intentionally built into, though hidden, in the texts. They are used during the development process of games to allow programmers to jump ahead, move through the game quickly, etc. They are usually turned off when a game ships, but are easily found later by players. My own (bootleg) copy of Star Wars Jedi Knight II would have been unplayable if my friend (who copied the game) never gave me the list of cheats that allowed me to skip over corrupt versions of the file (IPR police: don’t worry, I no longer have this bootlegged copy). Other forms of cheating are allowed for within the norms of gamer culture, while others are frowned upon.

Game modifications (mods) similarly do sometimes involve making brand new game content (explored in depth in Postigo, 2007). Some mods of games, however, merely reveal code that was turned off in the shipped version of a game. Take for example, the “hot coffee” mod in Grand Theft Auto San Andreas. This modification allowed players to unlock a normally inaccessible minigame where they could have in-game sexual intercourse. It was not something added by players, just uncovered by them in the game’s original code. In contrast, Robert Yang’s “Handle With Care” mod for Half Life 2 actually created a brand new game and new meaning. He used the code released for the original game to create his own game, which turned the first person shooter into a game that was in part about two men going through marriage counseling interspersed with the player stacking and then eventually breaking boxes in a warehouse.

The point in bringing Hall into this, moreover, is to interrogate the power dynamics involved. What counts as a dominant, negotiated or oppositional use, is intrinsically linked to who has the power to define how technologies should be used. When feminist and queer indie game designers appropriate the hypertext program Twine to create short, powerful games based on personal (though not always) narratives, these texts are derided as “not being real games.” They fail to abide by dominant definitions of what games should be, and how Twine as a program is meant to be used. They also, as Alison Harvey (2014) analyzes, challenge hegemonic norms of game production.

Moving away from games we can see similar dynamics at play in a range of other digital media objects, texts, practices, etc. Kate Miltner (2014), for example, has looked at the gendered dynamics (among other factors) in accusations of people (older women especially) using memes “wrong.” Who decides what is the correct use of a meme is? Whitney Phillips’ (2015) new book outlines how affordances of sites like 4chan and Facebook shape the types of trolling subcultures seen on those sites. As many others have commented, harassment is actually built into Twitter’s infrastructure. It takes a tool like Randi Harper’s Good Game Auto Blocker to shield folks from but one source of Twitter-based harassment, and many of the shortcomings of the tool (those who feel unfairly blocked) are shortcomings of Twitter’s affordances more broadly. Communication scholars often talk about the problems of governmental and corporate surveillance. The longstanding practices of sousveillance, or more colloquially watching the watchers, exemplified in video recordings of police brutality around the world demonstrate that not all technology enabled surveillance is created equally. Attempts to curb the latter so that the former can exist unchecked are legal issues that actually have to grapple directly with changing the affordances of technologies (e.g. enabling police to turn off bystanders phone and image recording technologies).

New, emergent, interactive media and communication technologies require that we treat audience activity as expected and promoted by these texts and technologies. Because of that, we have to rethink the political implications of audience activity somewhat differently. How is audience/user activity managed? How and which audiences/users are constructed as active? How do audiences/users shape their own production practices in response to their audiences? All activity is not resistive, of course, but neither is it complicit. It’s complicated and requires that we are attentive to new kinds of questions about what this activity means. Building on this, we can then integrate this “new media encoding/decoding model,” with Hall’s (1997) “Circuit of Culture” and T.L. Taylor’s (2009) “Assemblage of Play,” to make sense of how these afforded activities fit into the bigger picture of meaning making, ideology, and social structures. In the words of Stuart Hall, but modified slightly: “[Interactive media] is one of the sites where this struggle for and against a culture of the powerful is engaged. It is the arena of consent and resistance. It is not a sphere where a socialist culture—already fully formed—might simply by “expressed.” But it is one of the places where socialism might be constituted. That is why [interactive media] matters. Otherwise, to tell you the truth, I don’t give a damn about it” (Hall, 1998 [1981], P. 453).**


*This preconference was organized by Melissa Click (U of Missori), Jonathan Gray (UW-Madison), and myself. It was co-sponsored by the following ICA Divisions/Interest Groups: Popular Communication; Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Studies; Ethnicity and Race in Communication; Visual Communication Studies; and Philosophy, Theory and Critique. Additional sponsorship was provided by: the Scholars Program in Culture and Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication (University of Pennsylvania); School of Media and Communication at Temple University; Department of Communication at the University of Missouri, Columbia; and Department of Communication at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.


**I’m sure someone on the internet well take this out of context and suggest that I am calling for technology induced socialism. I’m not, necessarily, but I didn’t want to alter the politics of Hall’s quote either. I do think, however, that it is important to acknowledge that his work in particular allows us to think through to political implications of our scholarly work.


Works cited:

Berlatsky, Noah. “How to Save Twitter From Itself.” Playboy, April 22, 2015, http://www.playboy.com/articles/how-to-save-twitter-from-itself

Bruns, Axel. Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond: From Production to Produsage. New York: Peter Lang, 2008.

Consalvo, Mia. Cheating: Gaming Advantage in Videogames. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007.

Gaver, William W. “Technology Affordances,” Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems: Reaching Through Technology, 1991: 79-84.

Gibson, James J. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (New York: Psychology Press: 2015 [1979]).

Hall, Stuart. “Encoding, Decoding.” In The Cultural Studies Reader, edited by Simon During, 90-103. London: Routledge, 1997 [1973].

Hall, Stuart. “Introduction.” In Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, edited by Stuart Hall (p. 1-12). London: SAGE, 1997.

Hall, Stuart. “Notes on Deconstructing ‘the Popular.” In Cultural Theory & Popular Culture: A Reader, Second Edition, edited by John Storey (p. 442-453). Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998 [1981].

Harvey, Alison. “Twine’s revolution: Democratization, depoliticization, and the queering of game design.” GAME: The Italian Journal of Game Studies, no. 3: 95-107

Lubken, Deb. “Remembering the Straw Man: The travels and adventures of the hypodermic.” The History of Media and Communication Research, edited by Dave W. Park and Jeff Pooley (p. 19-42). New York: Peter Lang: 2008.

Miltner, Kate M. (2014) “’There’s no place for lulz on LOLCats’: The role of genre, gender, and group identity in the interpretation and enjoyment of an Internet meme”. First Monday 19 (8).

Norman, Donald A. The Design of Everyday Things (Basic Books: New York, 1988).

Parkin, Simon. “Who Spilled Hot Coffee?: The man who uncovered gaming’s greatest sex scandal.” Eurogamer, November 30, 2012, http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2012-11-30-who-spilled-hot-coffee

Phillips, Whitney. This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the relationship between online trolling and mainstream culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015.

Postigo, Hector. “Of Mods and Modders: Chasing Down the Value of Fan-Based Digital Game Modifications.” Games and Culture 2, no. 4: 300-313.

Taylor, T.L. “Assemblage of Play.” Games and Culture 4, no. 4: 331-339.

Yang, Robert.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” Escapist, October, 6, 2009, http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/video-games/issues/issue_222/6614-Not-That-There-s-Anything-Wrong-With-That

Williams, Raymond. “The Technology and the Society.” In N. Wardrip-Fruin and N. Monfort (Eds.) The New Media Reader (p. 289-300). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003 [1972].

Woffard, Taylor. “One Woman’s New Tool to Stop Gamergate Harassment on Twitter.” Newsweek, November 29, 2014, http://www.newsweek.com/one-womans-new-tool-stop-gamergate-harassment-twitter-288008