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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.