From 47% to Newtown: the Importance of Technological Affordances

We talk a lot within the Internet politics research community about “technological affordances.”  It isn’t a very common term outside of our small circles though.  There have been a couple of clips from The Rachel Maddow Show this week that I think help demonstrate just how important a concept it is, though.

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This first clip is about the “47%” video from the 2012 election.  Mitt Romney held a private, $10,000/person fundraiser.  Remarks from that event became public thanks to a smartphone or camera that someone set up to record the event.  They showed Romney talking plainly and coarsely about his electoral strategy, and explaining in harsh terms why those people would never vote for him.  His remarks became the single most recognizable mistake in the election.

The anonymous creator of the video revealed himself in an exclusive interview with Ed Schultz on Wednesday night.  Scott Prouty a bartender, a registered Independent, who has worked similar functions in the past.  Years ago, when Bill Clinton held a similar dinner, Clinton made a point of greeting the waitstaff.  Prouty brought a camera along for the Romney catering gig because he figured it’d be a chance to snap a picture with a Presidential candidate.  Later, while listening to the remarks, he decided that they ought to be recorded.

Social scientists of technology settled on “affordances” after years of debating technological determinism and the social shaping of technology.  There’s a bad habit of talking about technology as though it causes or determines human behavior (see: McLuhan, Marshall).  It sounds great on tv, but reality is always more complicated than that.  There’s another bad habit of talking about technology as though it has no impact on human behavior, because (ahem) people still have a choice in the matter (and people create the technology!).  Talk of technological affordances arose as an appropriate middle ground between the two warring academic camps.  People have agency.  But new technologies make certain activities easier, or more profitable, or more effective, or more likely.  And since we create the technologies, we should also take care in thinking about what affordances those technologies provide.

Scott Prouty’s experience is a great, positive example of the affordances of mass distributed devices that happen to record video.  It’s not like no one could have secretly tape recorded Mitt Romney 20 years ago.  If someone had enough motivation to expose Romney’s private commentary, they could have found the means using pre-digital technology.  They could disguise their video camera, developing an elaborate scheme to distract attention and catch the Presidential candidate on tape.

What changes here is that a lot less motivation is now required.  We all have these video recording devices on us at all times.  We have them not because we want to record every moment, but because we want to check e-mail and sports scores, listen to music and watch tv.  And that creates an affordance for people capturing important events on video that they hadn’t set out to catch.  It means that, if you want to keep something secret, you have to be aware of the invisible waitstaff.

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 The second clip is about the Newtown shooting.  We now have new data on exactly what happened in Newtown.  Adam Lanza fired 152 bullets that day.  He did it in 5 minutes.

Congress is debating an assault weapons ban.  Their debate displays a willful ignorance of technological affordances.  The consistent argument from Republican Senators opposing a ban on high capacity magazines is that “it is pointless to regulate magazine size, because killers can just bring more bullets.”  This squares well with Wayne LaPierre’s fantasyland in which “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”  It is also breathtakingly stupid.

High capacity magazines are “just” a technology, sure.  If someone had enough motivation to kill a bunch of schoolchildren, they could have crafted an elaborate scheme using other technologies.  The high capacity magazines just make it a lot easier for them to do so, and a lot more difficult to stop.

But here’s the thing: mass murder ought to be hard.

Watch that second Maddow clip.  Watch the justified rage that builds as she speaks about this stuff.  She’s right to be angry.  152 bullets in five minutes.  If we banned those particular magazine clips, it would have taken him longer.  That would’ve created some opportunities for something to go wrong, someone to react, or some alternate path that reduced the scale of the tragedy.

The point of talking about technological affordances is that it saves academics from endless debates about human agency vs technological agency.  It lets us move on to the real discussion: how is society changing, is it a good thing or a bad thing, and what policies, behaviors, or institutions would make a difference?

Policymakers and everyday citizens would benefit from that workaround as well.  The debate over assault weapons is obnoxiously stupid.  Its childishness is inversely proportional to the magnitude of the topic.

I don’t know whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing that anyone can easily record and upload video at any time.  It’s an interesting, multifaceted question, and a conversation worth having.

But high-capacity magazines?  The only affordance of that technology is making mass murder easier.  It’s good for the bullet manufacturers and their lobbyists.  There is no well-reasoned argument to the contrary.  We should expect more from our elected representatives than this.