As I mentioned in a previous post, I am beginning to collect some thoughts and materials for a project around the topic “Cultural Evolution in the Digital Age”. The goal of the exercise would be to investigate how new digital technologies change the process of cultural transmission and evolution, using methodological tools and ideas from cultural evolution theory (intended in a quite broad sense).
I am of course aware I am not exactly the only person interested in this topic, but I am slowly realising that the cultural evolution perspective could in fact provide something different from what is already around. A great share of the scientific work on these topics is carried on by computer scientists and physicists, and while generally excellent from the “technical” point of view (quantity and analysis of data), it often lacks, for obvious reasons, theoretical background in social and human sciences. The explanations presented are often ad-hoc models that reproduce – usually very well! – the data of the specific case studied, but can difficulty be generalised, or used to support pre-existent theories.
Good examples exist, but not, to my knowledge, coming from a cultural evolution perspective. Cultural evolution, with its explicit quantitative character, and with a distinctive taste for wide generalisation (it is intended as a plus here) seems especially well suited to be used as a theoretical background.
The goal of the project would be to have, in a short-term prospect, enough material to plan some experiments/models/data analysis specifically dedicated to the topic, and, in medium-term, possibly write a grant and/or a book on the subject.
The particular sub-topics would be selected as they fit with researches in cultural evolution. For example:
- Cultural transmission biases in the digital age. Cultural transmission biases (e.g. “copy prestigious individuals”) have great importance in cultural evolution theory. Their existence is justified with their adaptivity in small-scale societies, where, for example, “prestigious” individuals tended, on average, to be also skilled, and, moreover, their skills were – again on average – relevant for the individuals who copied them. What when we have access to a virtually infinite amount of models? What when the skills of prestigious individuals are not relevant? A discussion on this topic, from this perspective, can be found here, but no cultural evolutionary work, to my knowledge, addressed the question. The same logic can be applied to other biases. Conformist bias, for example, indicates a disproportionate tendency to copy the majority. In a small-scale society, the number of people performing a certain behaviour, or adopting a certain cultural variant, should be estimated, possibly in indirect ways. What when we are provided explicitly with precise signs of popularity (e.g. the number of likes in Facebook, or re-tweet in Twitter, etc.)?
- Preservative versus transformative cultural transmission. Is better to think to cultural transmission as a mainly preservative process (where variants are copied with relatively high fidelity and errors are random) or as a mainly transformative one (where individuals actively recreate variants each time they are transmitted, and stability is due to the existence of stable “cultural attractors”)? This question is central in a current debate in cultural evolution theory (see here). Digitally mediated interactions can be considered as supporting highly preservative transmission, in opposition, for example, to “traditional” oral transmission. How, for example, a story spreads in an oral context versus in a social media? Is there some content that is easier to transmit when it needs to be reconstructed each time, or vice versa?
- Are we getting more homogeneous, or more different? Again, this is such a common question that I feel almost uncomfortable to put it here, but the point is: is the cultural evolution perspective telling us something new about it? Here I refer to a tradition of modelling that originated with Robert Axelrod’s well-known Dissemination of culture model, but it is partly forgotten in contemporary cultural evolution. A series of models have indeed explored the consequences of various methods of transmission (and, explicitly, media) on cultural homogenisation and differentiation. I am convinced this tradition could be revamped, especially adding features like transmission biases (or cultural attractors) to the basic models, and it could tell us something interesting about how digital media are changing our society.
These are just some examples, I believe other subjects can be treated explicitly from a cultural evolution perspective, such as the whole echo chambers/information bubble issue (I wrote some musings recently about it here) and others. I am very open to any suggestion, and, especially, if someone is aware of some cultural evolution work on related topics (or s/he is actually doing something) I’d be happy to discuss!
Update 28 September 2016:
I recently uploaded a preprint (see here) where I explore at some length the first two topics, and I discuss more generally how cultural evolution could contribute to the study of digital media.
Update 18 January 2017:
Now a paper published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
[The picture, from the flickr account of Stockholm’s Tekniska museet, shows the Telephone Tower of Stockholm at the end of XIX Century. Every telephone required a direct physical line to a phone exchange centre – the tower – where the calls were manually connected by an operator]