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In this post I want to argue that our interaction in digital networked technologies is complex, dynamic and evolving, and that we need new metaphors to be able to explain theses interactions. Metaphors and storytelling have always been important ways in which we communicate with others and share meaning. In the early days of the Internet the discourse centred on notions of time and space, essentially replicating our physical existence into the virtual environment. We talked of virtual universities, cafes, libraries, etc. However, I think today’s interactions are much more complex than that and in this post I want to explore some alternative discourses, namely:

  • Ecologies
  • Memes
  • Learning spaces
  • Rhizomes

I have already talked to some extent about memes and learning spaces in an earlier post, so here I will concentrate on ecologies and rhizomes. An ecological perspective is useful in a number of respects. The first reason is that it can be used to describe the co-evolution of tools and users, and how each is shaped by the other. I draw in particular on Gibson’s notion of affordances (Gibson 1979). He argued that affordances in an environment always lead to some course of action. Affordances are perceived by an individual and are culturally based. Gaver (1991) argues that the actual perception of affordances will be in part determined by the observer’s culture, social setting, experience and intentions. For example a button has an affordance of pushing, a knob is for turning and handles are for pushing. Therefore affordances are properties of the world that are compatible with and relevant for people’s actions (Gaver, 1991). Gibson defined affordances as:

All “action possibilities” latent in the environment, objectively measurable and independent of the individual’s ability to recognize them, but always in relation to the actor and therefore dependent on their capabilities (Gibson, 1977, pg. 67-82).

For example, a tall tree has the affordance of food for a giraffe because it has a long neck, but not for a sheep, or a set of stairs has an affordance of climbing for a walking adult, but not for a crawling infant. Therefore affordances are always in relation to individuals and their capabilities; this includes the individual’s past experience, values, beliefs, skills and perceptions. Therefore a button may not have the affordance of pushing if an individual has no cultural context or understanding of the notion of buttons or related objects and what they are for. Gibson also argued that:

The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill (Gibson, 1979, p. 127).

He goes on to argue that it implies a complementarity between the animal and the environment. Salomon describes Gibson’s concept of affordances as follows:

‘Affordance’ refers to the perceived and actual properties of a thing, primarily those functional properties that determine just how the thing could possibly be used. (Salomon 1993)

The second value of adopting an ecological perspective is the notion of niche colonization of new habitats. As each new technology emerges users make choices about whether or not to incorporate it into their practice, as well as decisions about how it will be used. Some technologies thrive, others die. For example, despite being promoted as the next generation beyond email, Google Wave did not survive. Similarly it will be interesting to see if GooglePlus does overtake Facebook as the dominant social media tool.

The final point is related to this, i.e. the concept of survival of the fittest, each user makes informed decisions about what mix of technologies makes up there personal digital environment. 

The second metaphor I want to explore also comes from a biological context, namely the notion of rhizomes and in particular rhizomatic learning. Cormier (2011) defines a rhizome as follows:

A rhizome, sometimes called a creeping rootstalk, is a stem of a plant that sends out roots and shoots as it spreads. It is an image used by D&G to describe the way that ideas are multiple, interconnected and self-replicating. A rhizome has no beginning or end… like the learning process.

Rhizomes expand and flourish in rich environments and if they reach an area that is barren they stop developing in that direction and move somewhere else. This can also be applied to learning; learners will develop if placed in a rich learning environment, prompted by resources and dialogic exchange with others. The nature of rhizomatic learning Cormier argues is that it is complex and horizontal (i.e. non-hierarchical), which is very much what we see with the connections between people, tools and resources on the internet.

In an earlier post Cormier (Cormier 2008adds

A rhizomatic plant has no center and no defined boundary; rather, it is made up of a number of semi-independent nodes, each of which is capable of growing and spreading on its own, bounded only by the limits of its habitat. In the rhizomatic view, knowledge can only be negotiated, and the contextual, collaborative learning experience shared by constructivist and connectivist pedagogies is a social as well as a personal knowledge-creation process with mutable goals and constantly negotiated premises.


Cormier, D. (2008). Rhizomatic Education : Community as Curriculum. Dave’s educational blog: education, post structuralism and the rise of the machines,

Cormier, D. (2011). Rhizomatic learning - why we teach? Dave’s education blog: education, post-structuralism and the rise of the machines, 

Gaver, W. W. (1991). Technology affordances. CHI ‘91 Conference proceedings, New Orleans, Lousiana.

Gibson, J. J. (1979). The ecological approach to visual perception. Hillsdale, New Jersey, Lawrence Erlbaum Associated.

Salomon, G., Ed. (1993). Distributed cognitions - pyschological and educational considerations. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.




9 Responses to “Metaphors”

  1. AJ Cann Says:

    It’s not about the tools, it’s about the users. Visitors and residents is a model which makes sense ;-)

  2. Gráinne Says:

    Hmm that just doesnt do it for me and I beg to differ ;-) It is about the tools, in relation to the users and their co-evolution adaption. Some people love social media, others hate it. Although tools have inherent characteristics, these are only realised in the context of interaction with a particular user, who approaches the tools with a particular set of preferences and skills.

  3. AJ Cann Says:

    It’s not about tools, unless you’re a Visitor. If you’re a resident, the tools are irrelevant. Hang on a bit, I’ll get Dave ;-)

  4. Gráinne Says:


  5. Paulo Moekotte Says:

    Dear Grainne,

    First: small typo in the first bullet list (Rhizomes).

    Second: what about also enlisting Gee’s ‘affinity spaces’ as a metaphor?

    With regard to ‘affordances’: you could refer to the elaboration of the concept of affordances in terms of educational, technological and social affordances.

    Social affordances

    In accordance with Gibson and Gaver, Kreijns, Kirschner & Jochems (2002) define social affordances (within a CSCL-perspective) as ‘fixed properties’. Social affordances are seen as necessary properties so users can have a voice (social presence), experience group awareness and generate a sound social space. This ’sound social space’ could be compared with the Preece’s (2000) concept of sociability, consisting of people, purpose and policies.
    Jones, Dirckinck-Holmfeld & Lindström (2006), also from a CSCL-perspective, conceptualize social affordances as malleable properties, speaking of them as ‘features that can become affordances in use’ (referring to Orlikowski). So they come closer to Salomon’s

    Technological affordances

    With regard to technological affordances, you could refer to the work of Carroll (2004 & 2005). She talks about appropriation by users, i.e. the ‘completion of design in use’(2004) and ‘configuration of a technology portfolio’ (2005). Carroll specifically argues against a converging design approach, and stresses the importance of user ‘freedom’ in selecting and combining, i.e. appropriating ‘devices’. In a sense she also adheres to a more ecological view on appropriation and configuration of technology.

    My understanding of the concept Rhizome (going back to Deleuze), is that of recurring patterns or strains that spread virally, re-emerging without concrete signs of copying or transition. It reminds me of the occurence of strangly similar myths and fables across our planet, without traces of cultural transmission or social contact. It’s a hard to grasp concept, though.

    I hope these comments are useful to you.

  6. Gráinne Says:

    Thanks Paulo all great points and agree gee’s affinities stuff would be a good addition!

  7. Mohsen Saadatmand Says:

    I enjoyed this post about the metaphors. It provides a good perspective of how to investigate the nature of learning and and interaction in digital and network environments. Especially I am interested in “ecologies” or “learning ecology” and Rhizomatic approach to learning which I am working on in my research on the ecology of open and networked learning.
    Thanks Paulo also for the comments about’affordances’.

  8. ailsa Says:

    tools and users= hybrids (Latour),

    As for rhizomes: they often go viral and also get viruses. or at least thats my limited gardening knowledge

    I might have to reread some D&G…if i can manage the schizo state of a thousand plateaus, again… but i thought they said that rhizomes were antigeneology and therefore the metaphor of self replicating might not do it.

    Here we go:

    Deleuze and Guattari (1987) provide the analogy of the rhizome. This they describe as antigenealogy (p.11, 21) in that rhizomeatic relations provide “acentered, nonhierarchical…and without an organizing memory or central automation, defined solely by a circulation of states” (p.21). In specific reference to things in a state of change, or of things “becoming”, they describe becoming as “antimemory” and state “becoming is rhizomatic” (p. 294).

    What this provides is a deeply cautionary tale in presuming simplicity for how might change be traced when such traces disconnect, and where barely connecting or fleeting contact has influence. Deleuze and Guattari advocate following objects analogous to a rhizome by following the point of flight or rupture (p. 200) and then tracing the movements made. Hence distant changes may be related even though the traces may be difficult to follow.

    And then I’d start considering folds, or Garlands in time (Serres, i think, cited by Latour).

    Thanks for the opportunity to get a bit clearer with my own thinking.

  9. Gráinne Says:

    Great and deep! comments Mohsen and Ailsa, need to reflect on this a bt more!

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