Explaining multistability: postphenomenology and affordances of technologies

Bas de Boer*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

16 Citations (Scopus)
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A central issue in postphenomenology is how to explain the multistability of technologies: how can it be that specific technologies can be used for a wide variety of purposes (the “multi”), while not for all purposes (the “stability”)? For example, a table can be used for the purpose of sleeping, having dinner at, or even for staging a fencing match, but not for baking a cake. One explanation offered in the literature is that the (material) design of a technology puts constraints on the purposes for which technologies can be used. In this paper, I argue that such an explanation—while partly correct—fails to address the role of the environment in which human beings operate in putting constraints on technology use. I suggest that James Gibson’s affordance theory helps highlighting how stabilities in technology use arise in the interaction between human being and environment. Building on more recent approaches in affordance theory, I suggest that the environment can be conceptualized as a “rich landscape of affordances” that solicits certain actions, which are not just cued by the environment’s material structure, but also by the normativity present in the form of life in which a human being participates. I briefly contrast the approach to affordances developed in this paper with how Klenk (2020) and Tollon (2021) have conceptualized the “affordance character” of technological artifacts, and highlight how a focus on the situated nature of affordances augments these earlier conceptualizations.

Original languageEnglish
JournalAI & society
Publication statusPublished - 6 Sept 2021


  • Affordances
  • Multistability
  • Philosophy of technology
  • Postphenomenology
  • UT-Hybrid-D


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