Introductory Remarks

(Inkshed Working Conference, Saturday, May 4)

What I want to do here tonight is to get you to think with me about the things I've been thinking most about in the last few months, and then give you some ideas of what it is that I've been thinking and playing with. So there are three parts: I'll talk a bit, then I'm going to ask you to do some writing and talking, and then I'll talk a bit more, and try to invite you into a continuing discussion of the issues I want to talk about.

It won't be a surprise to anyone who knows me, I think, when I say that I've been concerned for some time about the immediate social context of discourse.

Or that I'm interested in writing as a tool for learning rather than (or, as well as) what is learned.

How I want to frame this discussion is by getting us all to think about an idea Roger introduced this morning: constraints and affordances. (I got the idea from Doug Vipond, who got it from the psychologist J. J. Gibson.

What I want to do is think about the constraints and affordances of certain recurring rhetorical situations. I want to make clear that how I (and, I think, Gibson, and I think as well, Don Norman) use these terms is to mean what things seem to make it easy or difficult for us to do with them. A refrigerator affords keeping milk in. It can be used as a wardrobe, but it isn't convenient for that. It also -- as Norman pointed out -- affords being used as a home message center. Similarly, one of the constraints of a refrigerator is that you'll find it difficult to put a TV set in it or freeze a side of beef (you can; it's clearly something it doesn't afford).

Maybe a better example will get us closer to what I mean. Let me think for a minute about the constraints and affordances of a face-to-face conversation over coffee out there in the hall. There are certain kinds of things you are not likely to say (some subjects of conversation are better afforded than others: hockey is down on the list, discourse communities are up; gardening is down, academic career patterns are up). There are also forms of discourse that are afforded: my diction here is very different from what it is in Phil's Garage in Burtt's Corner. We share references; we also share assumptions about the forms in which disagreement can be couched. We share physical references -- the sunshine and snow outside, the direction of the dining room, the location and character of Hall of the Gods. Silences are constrained: they can't be too long, but the longer we are here together the longer they can be. Similarly with turns: we can take longer ones the more references we share and the more we become used to being here together. Discussions of ideas become more frequent, and getting up to date on what's been happening with people, becomes less frequent as the conference goes on. Because it's oral discourse, it's very redundant and repetitive, and we come back to subjects again and again. There are lots of occasions for what the sociologists of language call "repair." Etc.

Writing situations, too, are subject to patterned constraints and affordances. A letter to an old friend enables certain kinds of locution and makes others less likely (someone used the example of the assignment that suggested a twelve-page letter to a friend, complete with references, in APA form). In some ways, every time we talk about the way genres evolve or develop, we're talking about patterns of constraint and affordance which are inherent in recurring rhetorical situations. I've talked at length, for example, here and elsewhere, about the constraints and affordances of inkshedding -- the pressure on what you write, and what you don't, of the fact that your writing is going to be read almost immediately, and of the way it's going to be read, and of the likelihood of publication. I think both the constraints and the affordances facilitate, by the way: in order to produce discourse we need constraints just as much as we need affordances. Bakhtin calls it answerability.

OK. What I'd like you to do right now is inkshed about the constraints and affordances of the electronic writing situation you are most familiar with -- whether it's electronic mail, bulletin board or Usenet participation. Or write about the one you find most interesting. Or write -- if you have no experience with electronic communication -- about what you imagine would be the constraints and affordances of that kind of communication, compared with, say, normal letter writing, voice mail, interoffice memos, or whatever. Lists will be as useful as discourse: do whatever's comfortable. But take some time to do it. Brainstorm. Keep writing when you've run out of things to say: it keeps the stuff coming and you can never tell what modulation will happen to the signal if the signal's still there.

Now, pass them around your table and read them, marking whatever you think is surprising or interesting. When everyone's read, we need a report from each table on what you think the major constraints and affordances of at least one form are -- and, if there are substantial differences between patterns of constraint and affordance between different forms, I'll be interested in that, too.

OK, now I want to talk about what I've been thinking about the patterns of constraint and affordance in electronic discourse. I'm going to do this pretty quickly and superficially, just to give you an idea of what I think the major issues are, and then I'm going to invite you to participate with me, on the Web, in an ongoing discussion of this issue.

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