Sunday, October 10, 2010

More on ecology

I read a book and everything I knew went through a gestalt shift...
Everything had changed when I finally closed the book and looked at my surrounding. Something had changed drastically while I was going through the pages of the book. I was amazed, and quite shaken by this odd experience.
I slowly raised my head and saw a constant flux of light instead of the mundane furniture in my bedroom. Light was coming from everywhere all at once not just from my reading lamp. It was changing continuously and what I saw was not objects per se but change itself. The flow was continuous. It was like a dream world and the world was playing a constant hide and seek game with me.

All of a sudden the earth was flat, the subjective and objective were one and the same, texture, color, and meaning became indistinguishable, I could see several things from different angles all at once, I could see the past, present, and future all at once, meaning and reality became two sides of a coin, vision was not a separate sense, the mind-body-world was a whole, the Cartesian coordinate system collapsed in front of my very eyes, time was not what I thought it was, everything was nested, all animals had self-consciousness. I was part of nature, there was no distinction between nature and culture--well, that hurt my pride a little but the bright side is I was part of something bigger. I had superpowers too, such as, seeing behind obstacles. I could see the distortions caused by people, other animals, sources of light, and myself. It was a place where there were two Polaris, my nose and the horizon. It was a different world with a flux of light from all directions where everything was connected to everything else. This world was truly illuminated. Things around me called my name and told me what to do with them, in them, on them, to them. They talked to me in their own way (Okay okay not quite but bare with me for the sake of my little story), I followed some of their orders or answered some of their calls and ignored some of them completely. I held some of them in my hands and made them part of me then shamelessly left them behind without an appropriate thank you. Thinking about it I have been quite rude. Where are my manners?
Seriously though, this a great book, and no I'm not talking about Alice in Wonderland. It's definitely a must read even if you are not particularly interested in perception or psychology. Especially the chapter on affordances is wonderful.
Gibson, J. J. (1979). The ecological approach to visual perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Below are a couple of excerpts form the book.

The world of physical reality does not consist of meaningful things. The world of ecological reality, as I have been trying to describe it, does. If what we perceived were the entities of physics and mathematics, meanings would have to be imposed on them. But if what we perceive are the entities of environmental science, their meanings can be discovered. (p. 33)

When in use, a tool is a sort of extension of the hand, almost an attachment to it or part of the user’s own body, and thus is no longer a part of the environment of the user. But when not in use, the tool is simply a detached object of the environment, graspable and portable, to be sure, but nevertheless external to the observer. This capacity to attach something to the body suggests that the boundary between the animal and the environment is not fixed at the surface of the skin but can shift. More generally it suggests that the absolute duality of “objective” and “subjective” is false. When we consider the affordances of things, we escape the philosophical dichotomy.
When being worn, clothing, even more than a tool, is a part of the wearer’s body instead of a part of the environment. Apart from the utility of modulating heat loss, clothing permits the individual to change the texture and color of his surface, to put on a second skin, as it were. When not being worn, a body covering is simply a detached object of the environment made of fabric or the skin of a dead animal—a complex, flexible, curved sheet in our terminology. But the article objectively affords wearing, as a tool affords using. And when it is worn it becomes attached to the body and is no longer part of the environment. (p. 41)

What the other animal affords the observer is not only behavior but also social interaction. As one moves, so does the other, the one sequence of action being suited to the other in a kind of behavioral loop. All social interaction is of this sort—sexual, maternal, competitive, cooperative—or it may be social grooming, play, and even human conversation. (p. 42)

The ambient stimulus information available in the sea of energy around us is quite different. The information for perception is not transmitted, does not consist of signals, and does not entail a sender and a receiver. The environment does not communicate with the observers who inhabit it. Why should the world speak to us? The concept of stimuli as signals to be interpreted implies some such nonsense as a world-soul trying to get through to us. The world is specified in the structure of the light that reaches us but it is entirely up to us to perceive it. The secrets of nature are not to be understood by the breaking of its code. (p. 63)

The moving observer and the moving sun are conditions under which terrestrial vision has evolved for millions of years. But the invariant principle of reversible occlusion holds for the moving observer, and a similar principle of reversible illumination holds for the moving sun. Whatever goes out of sight will come into sight, and whatever is lighted will be shaded. (p. 92).

Information about the self accompanies information about the environment, and the two are inseperable. Egoreception accompanies exteroception, like the other side of a coin. Perception has two poles, the subjective and the objective, and information is available to specify both. One perceives the environment and coperceives oneself. (p. 126)

..if there is information in light for the perception of surfaces, is there information for the perception of what they afford? Perhaps the composition and layout of surfaces constitute what they afford. If so, to perceive them is to perceive what they afford. This is a radical hypothesis, for it implies that the “values” and “meanings” of things in the environment can be directly perceived. Moreover, it would explain the sense in which values and meanings are external to the perceiverp. (p. 127)

The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill. The verb to afford is found in the dictionary, but the noun affordance is not. I have made it up. I mean by it something that refers to both the environment and the animal in a way that no existing term does. It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment. (p. 127)

Affordances “are unique for that animal. They are not just abstract physical properties.” (p. 124)

Hope you enjoy it as much as I have.

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