The Cultural Element (Katie)

This week’s readings helped frame computation as a stop on a historical continuum of cognitive artefacts in relation to affordances, meaning making and interpretation. All of these elements revolve around culture – this is a point that has interested me since the beginning of this course. An artefact is a meeting of properties of something and the environment in which it exists. Mahoney, in particular, articulates this when he says “any meaning the symbols may have is acquired and expressed at the interface between a computation and the world in which it is embedded” (Mahoney, 129). The world that meaning is embedded in is created by humans (cognitive agents). In other words, symbols have meaning to us – not computers – because symbols and the way we string them together expresses our representation of the world.

We derive meaning via an interface, which connects two systems by transcending the boundaries of those systems. As Irvine discusses, the interpretations we make come from the way we are socialized. Thus, affordances are “good” when they fulfill our expectations (Irvine, 3). Interfaces are created when we use perceptible, physical features to make meaning, which is reflective of our culture, values and intentions.

In this way, affordances draw meaning when they correctly communicate human intention through detectible features. As cognitive agents, we enact meaning through applied collective associations that we learn. Computing can be understood as the intersection between human intention and the symbolic process.

Some further questions:

As technology continues to evolve, should we be aware of the levels of mediation that affect meaning making? What if a new “meta layer” forms?

How specifically does the history of computation inform us moving forward? Do we ever take steps “backward”? What is the relationship between past and present?


Engelbart, Dave. 1962. “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.” New Media Reader. Wardrip-Fruin, Noah, Nick Montfort, ed.. 93–108. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003.

Irvine, Martin. 2016. “Introduction to Affordances and Interfaces: The Semiotic Foundations of Meanings and Actions with Cognitive Artefacts”.

Mahoney, Michael S. (2005) “The Histories of Computing(s).” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 30, no. 2 p.119–35.