New preprint “A cultural evolution approach to digital media”

I’ve just uploaded on SocArXiv a new preprint, A cultural evolution approach to digital media, where I suggest (surprise!) that cultural evolution provides some interesting tools to analyse digital media.

I explore at some length two topics: (i) How cultural transmission biases, whose existence is generally justified with their adaptivity in small-scale societies, operate in the context of digital media, where, for example, prestigious individuals possess not-relevant skills, or popularity is explicitly quantified and advertised. (ii) How the fact that digital media support cheap and fast high-fidelity transmission may influence the content of what is transmitted (this second point is based on a previous discussion on differences between preservative and reconstructive transmission developed here).

I propose, in general, that cultural evolution could be useful to take a “long view” to current changes, helping to understand what is new and what is not.  I also realised, by working to the manuscript, that cultural evolution suggests (well, at least to me…) a more relaxed attitude towards digital media in respect to what is the current common sense (see some dramatic titles here or here, but examples abound).

The manuscript is a sort-of review. Sort-of because there is not much previous research (if any at all!) on digital media from a cultural evolution perspective, so I discuss some cultural evolution works that could be linked to digital media and some works on digital media that could be linked to cultural evolution. On the other side, the overall academic literature on digital media is enormous, and I did not even tried a proper review. If it would not sound weirdly pompous it could be defined a position paper. In other words, I suggest some possible ideas for further research, experiments, and data collection.

The preprint is aimed to non cultural-evolution-specialist readers, and it is (hopefully) part of a bigger project (see here). In the meantime I’d be delighted to have any sort of feedback e.g. does it present an accurate image of cultural evolution research? Is it understandable for non cultural evolutionists? Is there some important work I am missing? Are my research suggestions vaguely interesting? Are there other possibilities equally (or more) interesting?



[photo Creative Commons licence from flickr – click for the original]


3 thoughts on “New preprint “A cultural evolution approach to digital media”

  1. On reading your blog post, I wondered if you were missing papers like Best (1997) “Models for Interacting Populations of Memes” – which studied usenet. Not all students of cultural evolution are mired in ancient history. For example, there’s the field of “memetic algorithms” which is focussed on using digital cultural transmission to solve optimization problems.

    The paper is nice. I wonder about your definition of “digital media”, though. I would classify writing as being “digital media” – since letters and words are pretty discrete and digital. I’m not sure what the best term for what you are talking about is – maybe “electronic” instead of “digital”.

    You’ve opined a few times recently that the term “meme” implies high-fidelity transmission. Do you also think that the term “gene” implies high-fidelity transmission? It seems to me that the mutation rate in both the organic and cultural realms ranges from ultra-high fidelity all the way to destroying organisms in each generation. Think about the mutation rate experienced by some microbes at Chernobyl ground zero for an example of real-world low fidelity transmission of DNA genes. As I understand it, this whole idea is not a misconception about memes, it is a misconception about genes. The mutation rate in evolutionary theory is a highly-variable parameter which depends on environmental circumstances.

    It is true that there have been some attempts to tie the definition of “gene” to transmission fidelity – notably by G. C. Williams (1966), with his: “In evolutionary theory, a gene could be defined as any hereditary information for which there is a favorable or unfavorable selection bias equal to several or many times the rate of endogenous change”. John Wilkins did once attempt to import this idea to cultural evolution. However the idea never got much traction. Enthusiasts for drift and neutral evolution objected – quite reasonably – to the idea that gene-hood depended on the existence of non-negligible selection pressure. Meme critics sometimes cite the Dawkins replicator trinity of “fidelity, fecundity and longevity” in support of the whole idea. However, these were intended as variable attributes, not defining characteristics, as Dawkins made pretty clear.

    1. Hi Tim,

      Thank you for your comment. I did not know the Best paper, I just had a look and it is indeed very interesting, thanks. Regarding “memetic algorithms” I have some -limited- knowledge (in my PhD I worked in artificial life, so I was at least crossing paths with people doing this kind of things), but I find this literature less relevant for my project.

      Regarding the “digital”: it is a good point, I just used the common definition, but I will look into it, and I could follow your suggestion or similar.

      For the gene=hi-fi transmission. This are complicated matters. My point of view is roughly as follow: in the case of genes, it is ok to assume, say in a model, that in the majority of cases it is safe to consider transmission hi-fi. Of course there are many exceptions and complications, but it worked pretty well in evolutionary biology. I do not think that this assumption is safe in the same way in cultural evolution (it could be sometimes, though).

      1. I think it is a case of who gets to decide which aspects of the meme-gene analogy are relevant: meme enthusiasts or meme critics. Very few definitions of the term “gene” say anything about high-fidelity transmission, so meme enthusiasts are not very sympathetic to criticisms that say that the term “meme” implies high-fidelity transmission. Very few meme enthusiasts have this association. The critics are arguing with the dictionary, they say. Go and look up the term “gene”. Go and look up the term “meme”. See anything about high-fidelity copying? Didn’t think so! High-fidelity transmission is often important to cumulative adaptive evolution, but it isn’t normally part of the definitions of “gene”, “meme” or “evolution”.

        It is possible that part of the problem comes from the “replicator” terminology. In the dictionary, the “replica-” prefix does normally imply high-fidelity copying – and the terms “meme” and “replicator” are commonly linked. Dawkins explicitly gave the term “replicator” a technical definition that made no mention of copying fidelity – but as a critique of the term “replicator” your objection makes reasonable sense. I too think evolutionists should steer clear of the “replicator” terminology because of the “high copying fidelity” issue, but I don’t feel that way about memes. Memes sometimes exhibit poor copying fidelity. I’m fine with that. It happens to DNA genes too sometimes. Yes: someone did once propose associating the term “gene” with high copying fidelity, but their proposal was rejected on technical grounds, and everyone else has moved on.

        Meme critics who raise this issue should face the fact that they are attacking a position which practically no meme enthusiasts hold. I’m generally all for criticism in science, but critics should generally attempt to attack their opponents actual positions. In this case, it is the meme enthusiasts who have the dictionary definitions of the disputed terms on their side.

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