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Cultural Beings Evolving in the Mesh

This one wrestled me hard. In it I use new terminology and concepts–coordinators, phantasms, cultural beings–as though I know what they mean and am comfortable with them. But that’s not quite the case. It’s only recently that I’ve invented them. It’s one them to use terms in a document where you define them. It’s another thing to use them in an extended exposition. That’s where they come to define themselves. So this post, a long one, is something of a shake-down cruise. Sure, I’d like to have things all worked out nice and neat. But there’s no way to do that except to put the terms out there and see how they do. That’s what I’m doing.

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In this post I further explore the notion of a cultural being and I introduce a metaphor for culture, that of a hyperfluid (cf. Tim Morton’s concept of a hyperobject). A cultural being, if you recall, consists of an envelope or package or coordinators along with all the actions that have given it life. It is thus a rather strange notion, which is why I want to explore it.

And I want to explore it in tandem with another strange notion, that of culture as something we might call a hyperfluid, something that has multiple levels of viscosity and thus changes at different rates. I’ve long thought of the brain, as a functioning entity, as hyperfluid in this sense. At the deepest “thickest” layer we have the physical structure of the brain itself. At the most superficial “thinnest” layer we have the flickering of neural impulses from one millisecond to the next. But that flickering can lead to changes in synaptic structure and, over time, those changes can “rewire” the brain at a fairly “deep” level, so-called cortical plasticity.

So it is with culture, which is, after all, a collective product of the brains of all those individuals in a social group over the life of the group. The thickest cultural layers settle to the bottom. These are the features that endure over decades and centuries, if not millennia. It’s at culture’s thin surface that we see ordinary everyday behavior. Here is where people read books, and write them, where they listen to music, and make it. In this process each individual will participate in many cultural beings and will, in turn, be shaped by them. And some cultural beings will attract only a few individuals while others will attract more. Some of those cultural beings will outlive any and all of the individuals that have participated in them.

What we have, then, are collections of individual human beings, biological beings, on the one hand. Each of them participates in and is (partially) formed by many cultural beings. On the other hand, we a bunch of collection of cultural beings, each of which has attracted participation by at least some individual humans while some will attract participation by many humans. Some of the latter are able to attract participation over decades and even longer, so that they outlive any of the humans that have participated in them. It is the interaction of these two sets of beings that give us this hyperfluid culture that lives in the social mesh.

Notice that I talk of cultural beings as living. They are and they are not. Coordinators–targets, couplers, and designators–are not alive. The humans who read the books and listen to the music, of course, are alive and it is that vivacity, their phantasms, which I am, in effect, allocating to the books and musical performers they witness. Cultural beings as I have defined them do change. While they are utterly dependent on humans, they also have a degree of autonomy from any individual humans. They are neither alive nor inanimate in a strict sense. So I will refer to them as being alive, a provocation that seems warranted as a device to stimulate thought.

Being in the Mesh

What do I mean by the mesh? For the most part I’m using that term as more or less equivalent to what Latour has in mind when he talks of networks of social actors, where the actors are not just humans, but everything encompassed within society, the humans, animals, plants, and material objects, both natural and man-made. All of it is gathered into the causal nexus of the social: the mesh.

But let’s start with the humans, biological beings. Make no mistake, they’re the ones that hold the mesh together, and culture is the glue that they deploy. So far as we know, the most basic case is that of foraging bands of hunter-gatherers. That’s how humankind began on the African savannas. Let’s think about them for just a bit to refresh ourselves.

Such bands typically have a dozen to thirty or forty members, all of whom know one another, some better than others, but all of them face-to-face relations. A number of bands will occupy a given territory, and people in any given band will have friends and relatives in other bands. So maybe we have two hundred or a thousand or more people all speaking more or less the same language and having more or less the same culture.

Those people and their relations are the core of the mesh. But we must also include the environment in which they live and the artifacts they’ve manufactured. They too are part of the mesh. They mediate relations among the humans.

Those non-humans are ‘covered’ with coordinators through which the humans assimilate them into their cultural system. Humans often place markings in the environment, such as slash marks on trees, or paintings on rock faces of cliffs and in caves. Or they may place stones to mark boundaries, and so forth. But environmental features often enter into myths and stories without themselves being physically altered and so become assimilated to culture. All of these involve coordinators in the technical sense I’ve been using.

Those myths and stories are what I have come to call cultural beings, as you recall from the introduction, a term I use to encompass not only the string of linguistic signifiers used to convey the stories, that is, the envelopes of coordinators, but the various individual mental acts (the phantasms) giving them life. Some or many of those environmental features may also function as cultural beings if they figure centrally enough in mythology and in the group’s way of life, that is, if appropriate phantasms are consistently associated with them. But I don’t want to get into figuring out just what qualifies as a cultural being. The question is an important one, but I’m going to leave it for later. For my immediate purposes we can regard the term as something of a placeholder whose extension will be in a specified later more specialized discourse. We can make do with some rough and ready observations. Continue reading

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The Vocal Iconicity Challenge!

Do you fancy the prospect of putting your communication skills to the test and winning $1000? If so, you should probably go and check out The Vocal Iconicity Challenge: http://sapir.psych.wisc.edu/vocal-iconicity-challenge/

Devised by Gary Lupyan and Marcus Perlman, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the aim of the game is to devise a system of vocalizations to communicate a set of Paleolithic-relevant meanings. The team whose vocalizations are guessed most accurately will be crowned the Vocal Iconicity Champion (and win the $1000 Saussure Prize!). More information is on their website.

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What is Culture that it can Evolve? The Mesh, from Individuals to the Group

Things are complicated, and there’s a sense in which I’ve jumped the gun in some of my earlier posts in this current series, which I’ve provisionally titled “Cultural Evolution: Literary History, Popular Music, Ontology, and Temporality.” So I want to do a little catch-up in this post before a final – I hope – post in which I return to the idea that cultural evolution is driven by the need to assuage anxiety, an idea I have from David Hays and which I introduced into this series in the post, Culture as a Force in History: the United States of the Blues.

What I would like to do in this post is to be more explicit about how we get from a collection of individuals to a culturally coherent group, from individual minds to a “collective” mind in the meshwork of individuals held together by a common culture. From there I will give a more detailed account of the coordinators in the cultural evolutionary process, for it is the coordinators that make it possible. Then we’ll be ready for an explicit account of pleasure and anxiety. I’ll conclude with some remarks on the need for cultural stability before we can have cultural evolution.

Note: Most of the rest of this post is edited from materials I’ve published previously, either in Beethoven’s Anvil (chapters 3 and 4) or my working paper, Cultural Evolution, Memes, and the Trouble with Dan Dennett.

Coupling, Music and the Mesh

How then do we go about constructing a physically coherent account of a collective mind? What I did in the second and third chapters of Beethoven’s Anvil was to argue that when a group of people is engaged in making music together, and/or dancing together, that they are functioning as a collective mind. In this collective mind most of the signal pathways are inside brains and bodies and transmit signals electro-chemically. But some of the signal pathways exist between individuals, where the signals are transmitted as mechanical waves through the air. The nature of these two sets of signals – their speed, their content – must be such that the overall ensemble functions smoothly.

Note that when people are doing this, each gives up most of his or her individual freedom for the duration of the activity. If they are playing completely notated music, such as musicians in a symphony orchestra, then they agree to play what is written in the score. They also agree to follow the indications of the conductor and to coordinate their actions with their fellow musicians. If they are improvising jazz musicians, they aren’t committed to a specific score, though a given arrangement is likely to have some specified melodic lines and back up “riffs”, but they agree to the general conventions to be followed in each piece and they agree to be responsive to one another in the group.

This may seem obvious and self-evident, but it is this self-evident cooperation that allows us to treat the group as embodying a single coherent “mind.” There is only one source of “free” agency, and that is the group. Music is such a subtle business that, despite all this cooperation, the individuals still have quite a lot to keep them busy.

That’s the easy part of the argument. But I did something else, something more abstract and more subtle. I called on the neurobiology of Walter Freeman. Freeman uses the mathematics of complexity theory to study neural activity. That mathematics was originally developed by nineteenth century physicists to study thermodynamics. Continue reading

Evolve an App Name: Results

On Thursday I ran an experiment to evolve an app name.  And here’s the name that won:

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I’m not sure if I could cope with having to say ‘Lingo Bingo’ for the next two months, but we’ll see.

Here’s how it worked:

  • Show the participant 10 app names for 20 seconds
  • Hide the names and ask the participant to recall them
  • Pass on what they recall as the stimuli for the next participant to remember

(you can still take part in the experiment here)

We predicted that the most striking, memorable names would be remembered and passed on, while the less memorable ones would be selected out.  That is, the names would evolve to fit the brains of app-users by being repeatedly learned and produced (iterated learning):

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54 people took part in the experiment.

Continue reading

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Evolve an App Name

Edit: The results are out!

I’m working with the Language in Interaction project to create an App game about linguistic diversity.  It’s a game where you listen to several recordings of people talking and have to match the ones who are speaking the same language.  It’s quite a lot like the Great Language Game, but we’re using many lesser-known languages from the DOBES archive.

But first – we need a name.  Help us create one with the power of Iterated Learning!

Click to take part in our 1-minute experiment to evolve an app name.

We’ll throw some app names at you, you try to remember them, then we throw your names at someone else.

Here’s a screenshot of the App in development:

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(P.S.: I’ve done this kind of thing before to evolve a band name)

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Cultural Beings, the Ontology of Culture, and a Return to Books and Blues

I haven’t forgotten my on-going series of posts on the direction of cultural evolution; you know, the one that started with Matt Jockers’ Macroanalysis? But I’ve been busy with other things. Here’s another post to add to that pile. I’m not yet burned out on culture, but lordy lordy I’m gettin’ there. But there’s a few more ideas I’ve got to get out there before I can hang up these particular shoes. If only for awhile.

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What do I mean by cultural beings? To be honest, I’m not quite sure. Let’s start by being conservative about it – though just what “conservative” means amid this kind of intellectual craziness is a curious question – let’s say that novels, like those Jockers considered, are cultural beings. So are musical performances, like those driving American culture; they’re also cultural beings. Cultural beings are things like THAT, but note that THAT ranges over culture in general and not merely so-called high culture. After all, most of Jockers’ novels and most of those musical performances are not high cultural phenomena. Many are distinctly low and vulgar, while others are merely middlebrow.

I am using “cultural being” as a term of art. It designates not merely the cultural artifact, whether it is a long narrative imprinted in a codex, a musical composition inscribed on score paper, or even a performance merely floating in the air and then gone forever, except for memories of it. Those physical things are just packages or envelopes, other terms of art I’m hereby proposing. And those packages or envelopes “contain” coordinators, the cultural analog to biological genes.

When we read texts or listen to (even participate in) performances, the coordinator packages elicit phantasms in the mind/brain. It is the phantasm that gives pleasure, and so leads to a desire for repetition, or not, in which case the package that elicited it is forgotten. Those phantasms belong to cultural beings as well. If you will, the package of coordinators is the body of a cultural being while the phantasm is its soul.

The Ontology of Culture

When I talk about the ontology of culture, then, I mean these entities and the relations between them: cultural beings, packages or envelopes, coordinators, and phantasms. The relations between them are complex and subtle and I don’t pretend to grasp them, though I’ve been writing and thinking about the at least since my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil, if not longer.

The overall relationship among them, however, is given by the evolutionary dynamic of blind variation and selective retention:

The evolution of cultural beings proceeds by blind variation among coordinators and selective retention of phantasms.

But what does it mean to retain a phantasm? Phantasms are (collective) mental events. They come and they go. How can they be retained?

They can’t. But they can be remembered and if the memory is compelling, one can re-create the phantasm. How do you do that? You re-experience the package of coordinators that gave rise to the phantasm in the first place. And so we have this modified formulation:

The evolution of cultural beings proceeds by blind variation among coordinators and selective retention of packages or envelopes.

Will that work? Will it do the job? I don’t know. I just thought it up.

Let us remember, however, that phantasms are the cultural analog to the biological phenotype. And what is retained in biological evolution is not the individual phenotypes. They all die and the matter of which they were composed rots. What’s retained is the phenotypic scheme, the Bauplan that emerges from a developmental process regulated by the genotype.

With that in mind, let’s move on. Continue reading

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Natural causes of language

Natural causes of language by Nick Enfield discusses theories behind cultural transmission of language.  From the blurb:

What causes a language to be the way it is? Some features are universal, some are inherited, others are borrowed, and yet others are internally innovated. But no matter where a bit of language is from, it will only exist if it has been diffused and kept in circulation through social interaction in the history of a community. This book makes the case that a proper understanding of the ontology of language systems has to be grounded in the causal mechanisms by which linguistic items are socially transmitted, in communicative contexts.

I like the argument that a particular ‘language’ (like English or Welsh) is not a real entity, but a “convenient fiction” – something I also argued in my thesis.

It’s a special book in two senses.  First, it comes from the new Language Sciences Press: an open access publisher where publishing costs nothing to the author and reading costs nothing to the reader.   Hopefully we’ll see this being used to good effect.

Secondly, it comes with a video introduction from the author!

Different approaches to causality in linguistics

Damian Blasi and I are organising a workshop on Causality in the language sciences (call for presentations now open!). As we were talking about the themes, we realised that there are multiple ways that a causal mechanism may manifest itself in the real world, and that very different statistical approaches may be applicable to each.

Below is the bare bones of a paper that should be coming out in an edited volume on Dependencies in language.  We discuss three types of causal mechanism, with examples from linguistics.

Continue reading

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Stone Age Minds (with Dr Kenny Smith and Dr Suilin Lavelle)

As part of the free online course, Philosophy and the Sciences, Dr Kenny Smith and Dr Suilin Lavelle have prepared a three-part video series on Evolutionary Psychology and Cultural Evolution called Stone Age Minds:

Clocking in at under 40 mins for the all three parts, the series provides a good primer on the basic principles underpinning modern evolutionary theory and how this relates to our minds, the environment and culture.

Culture, its evolution and anything inbetween