Have you ever given any thought into how artefacts you use in your everyday life seems to fade away in your subconscious as you use them? Furthermore, do you sometimes contemplate over the first time you used them and the difference in your behaviour towards them then compared to now when you use it without even thinking? I would like to devote this essay to these questions by reflecting upon Martin Heidegger’s distinction between zuhanden (“ready-to-hand”) and vorhanden (“present-at-hand”) and the concept of affordances.
The essay will start with a description of the above mentioned concepts followed by a portrayal of a situation that will stand as the pillar for the discussion of this essay.
For this essay I have used Paul Dourish’s book Where the Action Is: The Foundations of Embodied Interaction (2004) and this is my reference if nothing else is stated.
Martin Heidegger had the phenomenological approach that the understanding of the world is the understanding of our very being in it. Heidegger coined terms as Dasein (“Being-in-the-world”) and focused on our existence. With this view Heidegger contemplated ways in which we encounter and act through the world and through this he coined zuhanden (further referred to as ready-to-hand) and vorhanden (further referred to as present-at-hand). The idea of ready-to-hand is that of when the usage of an entity disappears in our subconscious and present-at-hand when we actively think about the entity.
The concept of affordances mean different things depending on which approach you take. There are according to Dourish three different approaches; J.J Gibson’s approach, Donald Norman’s approach and William Gaver’s approach. But the essence of affordance is that it describes a property of an entity that affords appropriate actions. Gibson’s approach explains affordances as a relationship between the situation, the person and the activity. Norman’s approach on the other hand says that affordances are suggestions or clues shown through visual appearance to what actions a entity can have. Gaver’s approach says amongst other points that things can afford actions and when we put them together they can afford something else.
I will discuss the concepts in the situation of bicycling. Thinking back to Heidegger’s ready-to-hand and present-at-hand, let’s first look at the different entities of the bicycle, what is it I am interacting with? The pedals is one thing, I use the pedals to move forward and to break. Then there is the steering wheel which I use to steer in which direction I want to go. There is also a seat to sit on, if I want, although I could chose to stand too. On most of the bicycles there are also hand breaks on the steering wheel which I can use to break as an addition to the pedals. On the steering wheel I also have the control of the gear, this allows me to change the resistance I want to bicycle with. Addition to these a bicycle can have a basket on the steering wheel and carrier over the back tier to store things as I bicycle. The bicycle can also be equipped with lights to increase my visibility when the environment is dark.
The first time you use a bicycle you might think about how you are supposed to use it. Looking at it, seeing the two pedals, the seat and the two handles on the steering wheel you might see the affordance of putting your feet on the pedals, your hands on the steering wheel and sit on the seat. In other words, the physical appearance of the bicycle could give clues on how to use them. Furthermore, the bicycle isn’t affording standing still since you can’t sit on the bicycle and keep it in balance, it therefore affords moving, and because of the rotating of the pedals, it affords you to use the pedals in order to do so. Of course just walking with your feet on the ground would also suffice to move you forward with the bicycle. The steering wheel affords to steer the bicycle. This is a very simplified description about the affordances leading to the “appropriate” behaviour of using a bicycle, although there are different ways to use it. The thing I want to press when talking about affordances is that the different entities of the bicycle affords different things and the bicycle as a whole affords things, taken Gaver’s approach of affordances. The pedals affords you to move them back and forth, then the pedals along with the wheels affords to move the pedals forth to spin the wheel forth and back to stop the wheel. The entire bicycle may afford riding it. So we can’t really talk about a bicycle as one entity in order to describe it, which we will see in further in the discussion.
Looking to my claims above about the bicycles different affordances it is clear that I simplify it to a person that has some experience with bicycles. When I first learned to cycle I had already seen my parents and others use their bicycles so I had an understanding of how cycling worked. So for me the explanation of affordances above would be quite accurate, if you think to Gibson’s approach of affordances. But, my first bicycle had extra wheels so that I could keep my balance. So when it was time to learn how to really cycle those were taken off and immediately the task of cycling became a challenge. I had already learnt that you pedal to go forward and steer with the steering wheel, but when I also had to keep balance all of these things had to be re-learned. The affordance of cycling was compromised because I struggled keeping my balance. To learn my dad had to hold my bicycle steady, otherwise I refused to cycle because I was afraid of falling down.
To talk about entities as present-at-hand and ready-to-hand we need to split the bicycle up. When I get up on my bicycle I place my hands on the steering wheel and put my feet on the pedals, they are present-at-hand, I acknowledge them and see to that my hands and feet are on them correctly. Then I start to move the pedals forth so that the wheels start spinning and I’m moving forward. I now concentrate on the environment, not really thinking about that I use the pedals, so they become ready-to-hand, the activity of me using the pedals turns to the background. However, when I need to stop for example, I change the direction of the pedals and need to put at least one foot down to keep my balance. Then the pedals goes back to present-at-hand, I become aware of them again. In a bicycle the pedals might be ready-to-hand and the steering wheel present-at-hand, it all depends on the situation. Because of the many entities of the bicycle, some of them may be ready-to-hand and some present-at-hand. It’s even possible for the whole bicycle to be ready-to-hand. Then the bicycle can become an extension of your body. Because through the bicycle you feel new things like the texture of the ground or if the ground is tilted up or down. This is possible through the fact that the bicycle becomes ready-to-hand so that the focus no longer is on the bicycle when you ride it but the extension of your perception that it enables.
When first learning how to ride a bicycle you are much more aware of its entities, you look at the steering wheel, acknowledge the pedals, the entities are present-at-hand. But the more you bicycle, the more automated the actions get and they disappear to be ready-to-hand. When my dad was holding my bicycle to help me learn how to cycle he ran next to me while I pedalled and steered to keep balance. After a while my dad realised I held the balance by myself without me realising it so he let go of the bicycle and I continued in the belief that he still held the bike steady. Now I cycled all by myself and keeping my balance had become ready-to-hand, something I did without acknowledging it. My point is that in order for an entity to become ready-to-hand you must learn how to use it to achieve your task. The way in which you use the entity is in turn dependent on the affordance of it and how you have understood it. You learn your way of using it and the usage becomes ready-to-hand.