Applying Affordances on Objects on the Digital World

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series The Quest for Defining the Digital Object

To fill the gap between affordances and digital objects in this section we are going to showcase some examples of digital objects and corresponding affordances. In the previous sections we have already elaborated in this direction but here we would focus further on the close connection that exists between the two. Actually, those two notions are inseparable in any world either physical or digital. There can be no Affordance as an abstract entity without an application on any object or an Object that can have no affordance applicable to it.

Modern Approaches

The web as it is formed today allows users to interact with certain various objects, and for its own, it provides a number of available choices of interaction. For example, if a user wants to buy a book from a library website, this is not possible. He may be forced to visit the Amazon website, for example, if there is a universal book object, there should be also a way to extend its affordances according to how a user would need to interact with it.

In this direction, the Android SDK developing team proposed the web intents initiative that aimed at allowing developers to extend affordances within the Android ecosystem by ranging the application-to-application communication. Nowadays, this has also been adopted  by Chrome, with Mozilla and Twitter also making clear its intentions in this direction

According to [Verborgh et al. 2012], much of the work on this track has to be addressed by the creation of new applications based on his proposing paradigm.

Google on the other side with the implementation of action regards that first all of the efforts have to be invested in the vocabulary at development time. Then the server is responsible to address those affordances on processing time. One similar approach in a broader scale after the web intents initiative is the web apps [Yves et al. 2014] working group by W3C trying to create common interfaces for the APIs to enhance reusability both regarding responses (schemas) as well the affordances over the objects.

The combined effort aims to create a holistic approach to tackling the problem for both describing a huge variety of web objects, as well as possible actions on top of them. Another similar effort more focused on social actions like notifications regarding a post is the activity streams initiative ( ), where a long list of possible objects and their actions have been documented and it is expected by applications developers to respect those guidelines. Towards this direction of standardization of digital objects and their actions, W3C has kick-started an interesting initiative that aims into concluding about the nature of a digital object in the near future ( ).

The areas of online courses are common, there are courses which are mostly videos and documents, and there are also the Learning Objects which are the families of possible actions and transitions. For example, if I choose the Object of a complete novice, I will be driven to choose a specific series of steps,  in which I always have the option to skip or revisit. Hence, this example is meant to showcase that the idea of possible actions, affords in digital objects has been already partially an option,  and there are the corresponding signifiers to make those actions visible. In this case, the skip button, the replay and even more.

Finalizing this section, it is important to mention two more noteworthy ontologies in this area. The first is the Pivon ontology discussed in detail by Hervás, Bravo, and Fontecha, which is a complete framework for describing relationships and interactions between users and devices. The second one is the umbel ontology (, which attempts to map existing vocabularies and ontologies into creating an interoperability layer between existing approaches. It is already grown significantly as can be seen on the figure below, and it is a remarkable effort that strives towards the correct direction.

The Umbel Ontology

Figure 1 – The Umbel Ontology

An attempt for some Definitions

It is important to try and set some solid ground by trying and experimenting with the ideas of digital objects and affordances and as well as defining them. In Ibn Sina’s words, the essence is the idea of a thing but existence is the thing itself. Similarly, we could say that affordance is the idea of an action, and activity is the action itself. Ibn Sina’s core ideas regarding the ontological argument could be briefly summarized in the following bullets:

  • an essence can exist in a physical form.
  • an essence can exist in the mind.
  • an essence can exist in itself, without relation to something we can physically or comprehend mentally.

If we apply the ideas of the affordance theory, we could safely suggest that an affordance can exist in the form of an activity when an affordance is embodied, it can exist only in theory Or we can say that there is an affordance called theGlassFliesToTheMoon, and even though there is no evidence of that happening, we cannot conclude that this is not possible to ever exist as a possibility.

This discussion could be further enhanced by applying some of Aristotle’s ideas and more recently the ones by Hume, Kant, or the ideas about the phenomenological perception of Husserl.

In attempting to summarize all the aforementioned arguments, we could borrow a definition by (Simondon, G., 2011) regarding the technical object, which in our discussion could be summarized by stating:

“is not made of matter and form only. It is made up of technical elements arranged from a certain system of usage and assembled into a stable structure by the manufacturing process”.

In our case we could say that a digital object is:

“A thing that is not made of matter and form. It is made up of technical elements arranged from a certain system of usage and assembled into a stable structure. The technical elements are relationships to other such objects.”

This definition provides an overview of digital object with a comparison to affordances. We can conclude that they are both complementary and we cannot define them separately.

To further demonstrate the necessity of such a definition a simple example is going to be explored. We have used numerous times our trash bin icon in our computer to clear unwanted files from our operational system. What is this application: Is this an object or an agent? When we interact with the icon, for the person is an object, but for the operating system is an agent.


This paper outlined and discussed a detailed state of the art on digital objects and affordances. A variety of research approaches and uses in those were portrayed. These incorporate enhancements in classifying knowledge, identifying patterns and defining objects and affordances in the digital world amongst others. The best in class in each of the considered applications is looked into, and intrinsic difficulties are highlighted. The study concludes that current approaches into defining digital objects and possibly their affordances are indeed challenging and pretty interesting showing a new direction of possible usages and a new era of web expansion. This includes functioning regarding mobile development, web services, Internet of things, smart cities, accommodation, governance, the aspect of business and tourism among many more variables of the socio-economic and cultural development of human and technology. It is obvious that the development of innovation will assume a noteworthy part in cutting-edge detecting, as the advancement of equipment required for detecting applications will be driven by these technological advances.

The main application of this conversation about digital objects and affordances can be applied to smart cities, where numerous new items with countless different applications will be dynamically infused into the system that will be a city and there has to be a way to resolve those in a dynamic way. As already briefly mentioned, the whole discussion and the need for analyzing and defining those abstract concepts takes place here because there will be an essential prerequisite in the direct future by agents to interact with new kind of objects and agents as well as objects would need to be sustainable for a much longer time. Those agents should be decoupled by developers and the requirement of continuous maintenance.

One of the most interesting questions that are raised from our research is the nature of digital agents and who those can be distinguished from digital objects. This can be properly addressed in the future, but for the time being it seems that each such agent has a double nature that can be expressed according to the current state of being and usage.

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