Sunday, April 13, 2014

Assignment: Object of Study Week 13, Application of One Theory

Literature Review:

In the second case study assignment, a more detailed account of the scholarship surrounding the UPS (more on that here as well) is given. There are two main arguments in the literature that I am terming the growth and death responsibility arguments. The growth responsibility argument is first, and more dominant, asserting that UPS is significant for its role in bringing together the various newspapers and communities of the counterculture. However, the death responsibility argument is that the wide dissemination of materials led to a homogenization of the underground, a “mainstreaming,” that played a role in the eventual perceived irrelevance of the underground press. Some scholarship treats the UPS as neither responsible for encouraging or dissolving the movement, but rather as a supporting player, a mere distributive pathway. Yet others note more minor contributions ascribed to the UPS include its role in generating revenue for the underground press, archiving the member papers, undermining notions of copyright.

Glessing, Peck, McMillian (arguably the current authority), Peck, Wachsberger, and Ridgeway are on the side of growth. Kornbluth, Armstrong, and Ridgeway (taking on both sides) offer arguments for the side of death.

In this case study, I am adding Michael L. Johnson’s The New Journalism, published in 1971. The reason for this addition is that he brings a slightly new angle to the discussion. Johnson is primarily interested in journalism, where previous writers have taken historical and cultural approaches. While still firmly in the growth responsibility paradigm, he argues that the UPS founding credo was a “condensation of the psychedelic, sexual, and political character of the papers” (16). This notion of the UPS structure as reflective of the counterculture ideals is probably first recorded in print here, and not seen as pointedly referenced elsewhere. He also sees the UPS as related to the Supreme Court ruling in 1966 relaxing laws concerning printed “pornography” in terms of encouraging proliferation (15). In this way, Johnson positions the UPS in familiar journalistic territory aside First Amendment rights.

Theory as a Network:

Affordances are the allowable actions for a given object. The term implies a relationship between object and actor (person, animal, other object) based on the properties of one and the needs and abilities of the other. Affordance theory grows from the field of Ecology studies. It is a term James Gibson first used to describe what an environment offers to its inhabitants, the possibilities for use embedded within the environment. Deeply intertwined in this sub-theory of Ecologies is the concept of perception. Before an object can be used in a particular fashion, the ability for that use must be perceived or imagined by the actor. Extrapolating from this, it is also true that there are affordances of objects that are never realized or known, and affordances that are known but perceived to be of little value. Furthermore, affordances can be shared by disparate objects across diverse traditional categories of classification.

Affordances, actors, and objects comprise a network within the larger environment. Objects become nodes in this network, connected to nodes representing their affordances. However, these connections must pass through the actors who engage with the objects and perceive the affordance. Additionally, the affordances that are not perceived are still part of the network. In that case, there are nodes of affordances that may be connected to an object without the conduit of the actor.

Affordance-as-Network. Click here for Google Drawing.

Definition and Nodes:
How does the theory define the object of study? What are network nodes? 
How are they situated in the network?

According to the understanding of the theory as a network described above, the UPS is the environment in which the actors engage with objects based on their perceived affordances. Gibson simplistically explains the environment as separating surfaces. Like the photo below, the UPS is the bottle, the surface structure that contains the living, changing network within. It defines the environment’s boundaries because the membership process determines which newspapers and content-producers will be part of the network. 

Image from Daily Mail article online. The sealed bottle has contained a thriving garden since 1960.

The object nodes would be the newspapers, content packets, microfilm, collective advertisements, and membership directories. The actor nodes would be the writers, illustrators, photographers, and editors at the member papers (content-producers). Other actor nodes would include the UPS staff members who compiled and mailed the packets, maintained the membership roles, obtained revenue by securing advertisements, created the microfilm, and wrote and distributed the library directories. The affordance nodes would be based on two things: the affordances perceived by the actors and the affordances possible but not perceived. An exhaustive list of these affordances would not be possible, as by definition the later category is rather limitless. However, some of the more significant affordances for the main object nodes can be seen in the table below.

Object:
Perceived Affordances:
Newspapers
reading, spreading alternative news and culture, cutting (to facilitate the reprinting of only selected content), reprinting, generate income through sales, outlet for expression, inspire activism and social change
Content Packets
introducing localized communities to one another, provide access to additional content, create unified message, spread common style and design options, create underground “celebrities” by popularizing their work nationally, the opportunity to consciously reject contemporary understanding of copyright by permitting free reuse
Microfilm
archive and preserve content, compress large amounts of data into more compact space, being technologically current at the time, an increased professionalism like mainstream papers also stored that way, increased potential for inclusion in libraries equipped with microfilm readers, facilitate future research
Advertisements (typically record companies)
generate income, take up page space (could be negative), professionalize the appearance (also possibly negative), create an association between the paper and something mainstream (often seen as negative)
Directories
archive newspaper titles and locations, an increase in title awareness/gravitas in and out of the community, possible increase in readership/subscription, facilitate future research

Some of the affordances above, like facilitating future research is likely not an affordance that was seen at the time by many, yet it is now one of the lasting and most significant contributions. For some papers, being listed in a directory is the only evidence available to the researcher that the title ever existed. Also, several affordances are attached to more than one object, like generating income. These two observations in application align with Gibson’s theoretical work.

The nodes are situated in the network without hierarchy, but there is strong undercurrent of interdependence. Affordances and their objects and the actors interacting with them for survival are part of an ecology. Bateson sees the actors’ minds, responsible for perceiving affordances, as itself belonging to “the total interconnected social system and planetary ecology” (467). This is the concept of immanence; all things are connected and dependent upon one another for survival. With immanence in mind, the nodes in the UPS network are dispersed equally but dependent. The newspapers need the actors to produce and distribute them, but the actors need the newspapers as well for their affordances of self-expression and community building. The objects are no more or less important than the people. Even the affordances seem to exist in this co-constructed space. They need the actor to be perceived and brought into reality; however, they also exist infinitely in the abstract needing only an object to be attached to in potentiality. Then again, because affordances can be shared by many objects, they are independent of any one thing and rather function as invisible links between all the nodes - realized affordances, actors, and objects.

Node Agency
What types of agency are articulated for various types of nodes?

In this network, the actor nodes appear to have the most control and autonomy. The actors can decide which objects to make use of and how and which affordances are significant; so much depends on what the actor perceives about the objects. The object nodes for their part are rather inert; they may sit silently in the network with helpful affordances going completely unperceived and thus unutilized. They have no way to communicate the full range of their affordances, but must wait for an actor to bring them into existence. 

Like a prop waiting to be given significance by the actor, affordances must be rendered by the object's user. Image from The Guardian online article.


However, the actors are not fully independent; they are operating within cultural constraints. Norman argues, “Cultural constraints are learned conventions that are shared by a cultural group,” and these constraints can influence the affordances one attaches to a particular object. Constraints are a kind of training that occurs over time as repetitive experiences enhance our ability to see certain uses and obscures others. Just like the baby in the video below (and just as easily), we are conditioned to expect certain responses or functionality from our objects. Yet the question becomes, what are we not seeing?



The founding staff members for example, one of the actor nodes, based the structure of the UPS on the AP, another news-sharing service. This cultural constraint of how to gather and distribute news was helpful in providing a proven structure, yet what affordances were possible but not perceived? How did exposure to the culture, limit the agency the founders exerted? How did the past patterns of use restrict their creativity and decision-making? Was there some equivalent at the UPS to the tossing aside of the print magazine by the baby in the video in favor of the “one that works”?

Network Action
What are the types and directions of relationships between nodes? What is moving in a network?

Two ways to categorize the relationship types between nodes in this network are egalitarian and coordinated. Similar to the way nodes are situated with Bateson’s interconnected immanence, Bateson and Gibson encourage thinking about affordances as a series of patterns rather than individual objects. Bateson argues that we need "inquiry into pattern rather than inquiry into substance" (455). Gibson discusses the "niche," or how something lives and uniquely occupies space, as a "set of affordances" (128). It suggests that the individual object is not as important as how it fits into a pattern of use(s) or a set of behavior(s). Nothing stands alone; there are patterns and sets to which things necessarily belong. Furthermore, meaning is derived from the examination of patterns and sets, not individual affordances.

For the UPS, the nodes are certainly equal. When content was collected and distributed, there was an attempt to be inclusive regardless of the paper’s circulation. Smaller papers could be included alongside the larger papers (like a Twitter feed - before the latest updates - where all tweets are seen, none hidden or given priority, regardless of the number of followers for that tweeter). It is also true that the nodes should be understand as belonging to sets in coordinated relationships. No single papers constituted the movement, and examining a single title would not reveal the full scope of the underground press. The object nodes of the newspapers can be gathered into different sets like region, circulation, dates of publication, and purpose (more politics/news or more art/culture), but in whichever way they are organized, they are more meaningful as a group.

Within the UPS network, what is moving under this theory can easily be purpose. As objects and actors are added to the network, new affordances are perceived and emphasized. Advertising, directories, and microfilm were all added after the initial founding and fluctuated in importance to the staff and members over time. This can perhaps be attributed to Gibson, who explains that thinking in terms of an object's affordances allows for greater fluidity in understanding it. Rather than thinking of something rigidly in terms of a classification system, we can understand how an object is used or could possibly be used. He notes that classification systems (like giving Latin names to biological objects) often make no reference to what the objects can do or how they can be used; the names are arbitrary (134). Then these labels force us into thinking about that object as only belonging to that one place in the system. However, if we think in terms of affordances, the object can belong to many different categories of thought. The newspapers can belong to the set of affordances for spreading information, but also preserving it. They can be platforms for expression, but also for generating income. Being able to slide between these classifications allows for the purpose to expand and shift.

Network Content 
What happens to content or meaning as it travels through a network? 

In light of the discussions above, meaning(ful) affordances can be understood as being appropriated by various actors as it moved through the network. For the actor nodes interested in sustaining the newspapers through financial support (a real concern with the real costs of printing, licenses, and distribution but seen as a mainstream bummer by many), the affordances of newspapers to be sold and print ads was emphasized. However, the message of the movement contained within the pages was seen by others as the most significant affordance, and so they were likely to take advantage of the newspaper’s affordance of portability and transferability by just handing them out without collecting a fee. Meaning was assigned and erased by the actors in control of the objects at any given time.

Network Growth

How do networks emerge, grow, and/or dissolve?

In this network, growth and dissolution are two sides of the same coin: diversity. Bateson argues that heterogeneity is necessary for survival, and that "potentiality and readiness for change is already built into the survival unit" (457). He continues, "The artificially homogenized populations...are scarcely fit for survival" (457). This is also true in application to the UPS. Growth was encouraged by the diversity of new papers becoming members; however, as sharing led to homogeneity, the underground began to lose relevance and papers rapidly collapsed, noted by Kornbluth.

Cultural conventions would also shape the network, which speaks to growth. Constraints can be limiting and work to herd and corral a network into a certain space. The UPS network grew in particular directions using cultural conventions recognized among the member papers, such as traditional advertisements printed in the papers and library periodical directories. Because these forms of awareness-building already existed in mainstream journalism forms, they constrained the way the UPS spread its organization through recognizable tools for gaining members.

Conclusion

What does the particular theory allows you to discuss, or not, when analyzing your object of study?

This theory has an emphasis on action: what can be done, what is being produced between the actors, objects, and affordances (see the chart above). However, there is less on the content of the papers and the community building. Affordances theory does not seem to have a way to see one affordance of an object as more or less significant. Each affordance is just one more way to utilize the object, which may diminish some of the cultural work that UPS did as it focuses more on the processes of making and shaping the organization itself.

One new addition to the thinking came from making the chart, which helped me see redundancies in the network I had not seen before - like the multiple ways archiving and income generation were afforded. I find myself asking if this hindered efficiency or ensured it? Would centralizing the income generation efforts at the national level have freed up the creative efforts of those at the local level, or would this have caused bureaucratic bogging down of cash flows? I would be interested to think about that in greater detail.

My favorite part of this analysis though is that I can discuss myself as an actor node (future researcher) in the network. I had not yet seen a place where I am part of the network, but I can with this theory because I make use of the affordances of its objects.

Works Cited:

Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc., 1987. Print.

Gibson, James. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 1986. Print.

Johnson, Michael L.. The New Journalism.  Lawrence, KS: UP of Kansas, 1971. Print.

Norman, Donald A.. "Affordances and Design." Don Norman: Designing for People. 2004. Web. 15 Mar. 2014.

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