The Future of Culture.

This is my first attempt to put forward a possible media and communication futurescape. PLEASE critique it, it will help me clarify my own thoughts. I appreciate your comments.

I will approach this from three facets – the concept of Memetics, The evolution of Culture Industries, and the implication of Complexity. I hope to make the following points –

– The creation and transmission of memes/culture is perhaps the single most important function of our race. Hence, whatever best benefits a meme in the existing environment, will be an “inevitable” cultural/technological result.

– The mass industrialisation of culture, while initially beneficial to transmission of memes, has been replaced by a “mass customisation” of culture which overcomes the structural blocks to memetic transmission inherent in the system it is replacing

– Methods/Process of Culture creation and transmission can increasingly be seen as emergent behavior within the complex Adaptive system of what i call “Culture-tech”

Part 1 – Of culture, evolution and memes

TO begin with – a simple question – What is culture? Well as you can see there are a myriad definitions but the following seems to encompass most of it. Culture is “An integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for symbolic thought and social learning.

Now its obvious to us how important “culture” is – its what makes us human, isn’t it? Research shows that, at birth our brains are not too different from a monkey’s, and then grows prodigiously through infancy. The areas that grow fastest – the ones that differentiate us from monkeys – are precisely the areas that allow us to participate in “culture”.  In the researcher’s words –  “Extra-large helpings of social and cultural knowledge customize the infant brain, making both babies and the species more adaptable and allowing for complex social institutions to develop.”

Richard Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene” is a very good read. He talks about “universal darwinism” and gives amazing insight into the mathematics of replication, using the gene as a primary example of a “replicating unit”. Using simple, axiomatic “rules”, he brings forth a very logical explanation of our behavior, all trickled down to game theory, probabilities, and an extremely large number of iterations.

In a nustshell, Dawkins states that, given that the ‘prime directive’ of any replicating unit (for example, the gene), is to create a copy of itself, over enough iterations and enough mutations, there will be some “winning strategies” which will  emerge. A simple way to explain this to yourself is by examining the simple model of evolution – the creature that “fits” best in its environment will survive, and beneficial random mutations will be passed through the generations.

In other words certain genetic “traits” exist because they’re beneficial to us in the given environment – if they were detrimental, then those with that trait would have a lower possibility of surviving/reproducing. Again simplistically it explains (for example) the difference in physical features of people living in the tropics vs those who live in higher latitudes.

Now, going back to brain development. The development of  “the trait” of participating in culture is SO important to our genes, we actually risk our lives to make it happen! Compared to all other species, human childbirth is the single most life-threatening for the mother – simply because the head of the child is so big. Even then, its not good enough – compared to their life expectancy, Humans also have one of the largest periods of “infancy”, as their culture-hungry brains grow. During this period the individual is in continuously “dangerous position”

For humans to risk SO much to allow us to participate in culture, it must be extremely important for our survical, isn’t it?

In Chapter 7 of “A selfish gene”, Dawkins went on a thought experiment. While he had been talking about genes as an example of replicators, he posited that there was a “universal darwinism” in the evolution of any replicating unit. While searching for any other “replicating” unit he hit upon culture.

There is no doubt – Culture (as defined at the start) replicates – it is transmitted laterally and horizontally. The fact that we speak english, local slang and lingo, any movie we see, or book we read, is a testament that cultural ideas are being created, transmitted and replicated.

Dawkins decided to try and analyse culture using the principles of Universal Darwinism. To do so he hypothesised a cultural unit similar to the gene. Just like the gene is a single unit of transmission of genetic information, he attempted to explain cultural evolution through the transmission of a “meme” – the single unit of cultural transmission. Culture then, is a collection of memes, that are created and copied, often mutating and evolving en route

Although the meme (and its study, memetics) has its detractors, i find it a fascinating way of understanding cultural evolution. These are the salient features which i want to pull out

1. Evolution is not planned – it consists of random mutations some of which are benficial to the gene, others which are detrimental – on the whole, those mutations that are detrimental will winnow themselves out of the system

2. We can perhaps use the same logic for cultural (memetic) evolution – ie, the memetic/cultural ideas that benefit our genes are more likely to be replicated,  than those cultural ideas that are detrimental to our genes

Music, one of the earliest “memeplexes”, demonstrates the above points. Having originated nearly 40,000 years ago, researchers feel that it may be one of the big advantages that allowed Homo Sapiens (us) were able to succeed over the Neanderthals!

Over iterations, ability to create, understand and transmit memes seems to have become synonymous with genetic success. Simplistically the most “attractive” people are those who have been succesful in creating and transmitting memes (Movie stars, musicians, writers etc). What is good for the “meme” has become synonymous with what is good for the gene. And most of our mental effort goes into “figuring out” how better to create/transmit memes

Evolutions in technology that help “memetic transmission” compared to previous technologies are hence not only preferable but also therefore inevitable.

So although it sounds like a silly question, it becomes worth asking – what does the meme “want” to be better transmitted?

As mentioned in a previous post there are three factors that define the success of any replicator

– Fecundity – How often does a replicator create a copy of itself in a given period of time

– Copying Fidelity – How “true to the original” is the replicated copy

– Longevity – How long does the replicator live?

If we think about it –  the giant strides in communications can be seen as improving the overall environment for memes, no? From developing language, to the printing press, to electromagnetic transmission, to this whole “internet” phenomenon – how has each of these affected the above three factors for memes?

Could we go as far as to say that “Digital, Free” will be an inevitable outcome simply because it is the most beneficial for memes?

Think about it.

So this ends part one of this article. In this i’ve dealt with the 1st point mentioned at the very start of this post. Next time we’ll move on to point two!

I really look forward to your feedback.

PS – i found this – how many are directly or indirectly connected to meme creation?

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About Tarun

Joker, smoker, midnight toker. Teacher, writer, general gadabout
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4 Responses to The Future of Culture.

  1. Quite engaging and thought provoking , the point abt culture is that it is like in-laws , do we need it ? not necessarily but everyone has it . That is how I see it

  2. Neha Garg says:

    The evolution of the memes, wrt to human race can be seen at three levels – genes, traits, and behaviour. It’s interesting to note a pattern here. The respective ‘carriers’ of the meme take it upon themselves to replicate it. The body, the mind and the actions control and guide the evolution, but of course, probably involuntarily, or rather unconsciously! It raises another question too, is the ‘popular’ new ‘culture’? And whatever is carried forward and replicated, always the ‘right’ one? Then, what be the parameters for determining that right one?

    Dunno if this makes sense.

  3. Harsh says:

    Tarun,
    I would urge you to perhaps consider an alternative way to define culture, to move away from ‘an integrated pattern’ to think of it as a ‘meaning system’. Culture is then more interpretation of symbol systems than a whole that has law like properties. ( Geertz, 1973, the interpretation of cultures)

  4. Pingback: Movies, Politics … and Memes | Collectivity

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