Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Cultural Evolution in a Hybrid Society

Posted 03 Mar 2011 / 0

Monolith-(grain)-2013-01_0200pxThe process of cultural evolution fascinates me. It is still a topic that I need to research further, but I think about it often. My Human Evolution course is steeped pretty heavily in the idea that culture as well as biology has evolved in Homo sapiens, and we talk briefly about how culture might evolve. I, like many, got my start thinking about cultural evolution with Richard Dawkins’ famous (and I might argue most valuable) chapter of The Selfish Gene (Dawkins 1976) entitled “Memes: The New Replicators”. In this chapter, Dawkins argued that culture exists in packets (“memes”) that are passed from person to person. The prevalence of these memes depends on their success at being replicated through transfer to new people. Early in human cultural evolution there were only memes, as the brains of people were the only places cultural ideas could be stored. Some have suggested that the invention of written language — now intensified through the digitization of not just language but also sounds and images — has ushered in a new way of transferring cultural packets (so-called “temes” or technological memes). The jury is still out for me on memes and temes: although it is clear to me that culture evolves, I am not certain that the “meme metaphor” is the best one to capture this process of cultural evolution.

I have witnessed cultural evolution in my lifetime. Most of us have. But for those of us straddling the pre-internet and post-internet ages, the opportunity to observe rapid cultural evolution has been unique. Although the internet has not completely homogenized our exposure to culture, it has certainly upped the speed at which the cultural blender churns. Cultures used to be quite separated, with slow bleed between them. Now, a person can come up with an idea and in a few days it can be spread globally. I am a bit wary of the idea of “internet memes” because most of these phenomena that “go viral” are short-lived and pretty meaningless, but I do think that culture in general is now more uniformly available for spread than it has ever been at any other time in history.

Although they are both forms of culture, when it comes to cultural evolution I think that it is important to distinguish between material technologies (i.e. tools) and pure ideas. Is this the ‘memes versus temes’ distinction? That’s not entirely clear because actual objects are neither and yet they have aspects of both concepts in them. A tool is meme-like in that it can be imitated, but it is teme-like in that it represents some stored information about its own form. Even the most simple tools are difficult to make by simply observing the properties of that tool: especially if you have no pre-existing knowledge of how to work the particular materials from which the tool is made. If you do not believe me, go ahead and try to make a simple stone tool without reading or receiving any instructions! That tools contain little information about how to replicate themselves makes them questionable as temes, and yet they are not memes either. The ideas that empower us to make and use a tool are the memes.

What I think makes tools different from other cultural products is that material technologies exist outside our heads: although we may store in our brains the methods by which to make tools, the tools themselves unequivocally exist in the material world. This means that they have a more unitary nature than ideas: while many tools are made of modules, in the end they take a particular form with a particular utility. In contrast, ideas are much more modular in nature: it is not even clear what the smallest unit of an “idea” is, and they clearly can be recombined in a dizzyingly vast array of possibility. So although tools may evolve over time due to changes in the way they are made, this is a byproduct of the memes we carry for their manufacture, not the actual ‘memetic evolution’ of the tool.

This difference between ‘tools’ and ‘ideas’ explains for me their very different patterns of spread. Tools spread slowly but widely, because they come in a particular form with a particular utility. When a new tool is shown to have utility, it is likely to be adopted. Learning how to make a tool through some combination of instruction and observation is all that is needed to transfer the memes of manufacture. These memes are unlikely to be recombined with other memes related to craft, at least in the near-term, because in order to make a functional tool one must create all of the essential features of the tool from the raw materials needed to make it. Ideas on the other hand are tougher to spread widely, because their utility in our heads depends so heavily on what other ideas we carry. For tools, context is limited: a tool can only be made of so many materials in so many configurations with so many ways of using the tool. Ideas, in contrast, can exist in a great variety of contexts, across which their utility varies dramatically. I would suggest this is why ‘idea culture’ has been much slower to spread than ‘tool culture’ historically. Ideas are more localized because they need the proper context in which to be valuable. Their ability to be recombined with each other means that they have to potential to be combined in a lot of really useless ways, and so unless a complex of ‘compatible ideas’ is transferred in whole, it is hard for ideas to spread.

Or it was. Digital media and the internet have broken down many of the boundaries that keep ideas localized to a particular area and context. Whereas ideas would have had to spread from person to person in order to span vast geographic distances, they now have a distance-insensitive means of transportation. Through the internet I can see what kind of dance is popular in Southern India, get the lyrics to the latest pop tune, or learn the political positions of candidates for a elected office in Peru: all in an instant. This is a radically different condition than existed even a decade ago. Now that so many of the earth’s human inhabitants can plug into a global network of information we longer rely on direct person-to-person transmission of information. Local transmission of ideas is no longer required, and may no longer be all that important. And although there are still people producing and receiving the ideas that stream across the web, the person-to-person contact has been made obsolete. Temes, in their now-glorified forms, have taken over the job of transferring culture.

My interest in pointing this out is not to judge whether this shift is good or bad for individual people. Instead, I want to explore the consequences of this extraordinarily rapid spread of ideas for humanity as a whole. I suggest that we now live in a hybrid society. This society is hybridized in both space and time. Spatially boundaries have been broken down due to the free spread of information, as individuals who would never have come in contact with each other can now share ideas simply by posting them to the web. Temporal boundaries have also been broken down, as current-day ideas are now preserved for future generations as never before. The digitization of cultural ideas and artifacts has also created a cultural time machine, allowing all of us living today to explore the cultural worlds of the past in a way that would have been impossible to do only years ago.

I should acknowledge that this shift is one of degree and not a revolutionary new way of transmitting culture. For years books, sound recordings, and film (the temes of the past) have served to create bridges between the culture of today and the culture of yesteryears. But the internet has ramped up access to broad swaths of cultural time like no novel, album, or movie ever could. When temes were analog, they maintained locality: you had to have a book or record or film reel in your hand in order to access the cultural ideas they stored. In the digital world, temes are global. Similarly, the spatial boundaries preventing cultural transmission of memes have been partially surmounted in the past through mail and phones; digital media simply take these forms of communication to a completely new level. Cultural bleed began with in invention of culture, as local tribes must have occasionally come into contact with other tribes and exchanged tools and ideas. But the degree to which culture bleeds from place to place and the degree to which present generations have access to past cultures matters greatly for how culture evolves. We have crossed an important threshold, as culture is no longer bound to spatial or temporal locality.

A large part of this shift is potentially wonderful. Recent rebellions against totalitarian and/or autocratic regimes — so-called “internet revolutions” — in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya highlight the real power the free spread of ideas has to break down the cultural artifices of oppression. Skeptics might argue that the internet could be used to equal effect to promote repressive ideas. The proliferation of hate groups on the internet seems to support this fear, but I wonder: when they are no longer given their safe haven in an isolated locality, will illogical and counterproductive ideas really survive for long? I do see that the free spread of ideas has a lot of power for liberation.

But I also have a worry about the effect of being a hybrid society: I think that the rapid spread of ideas tends to stifle innovation. That may seem like a somewhat odd concept given how much we are fed the mantra that information exchange facilitates innovation, but hear me out on this one.

First of all, I do not worry that the rapid spread of culture threatens innovation of new or better tools. Clearly I would be a fool to make this argument, as we have witnessed a truly impressive improvement in all sorts of tools, all facilitated by the easy means by which design ideas are transmitted and copied. If we can manage to cobble together enough decent ideas to survive for awhile, I do not worry that we will lack for innovative tools.

Instead, I worry about ideas. I think that our hybrid culture has the very serious potential to stifle innovation and even to lose already-powerful idea complexes to the overwhelming wave of information that is now available to us. We are hybridized in time — history can now be digitized — such that the cultural drifting away of history no longer occurs. We live amongst the clutter of a cultural attic that keeps filling up but never clears. We are hybridized in space — ideas now spread globally — such that local culture no longer can maintain a coherent uniqueness under the onslaught of foreign influences. We exist in cultures that are constantly being stirred such that they can never really settle.

But isn’t diversity good? Isn’t pluralism the hallmark of civil society? Isn’t the story of our cultural mixing also the story of our success? To all three of these queries I would offer a conditional answer of “yes”: the fluid exchange of ideas is superior to complete isolation. But I worry that we have gone far past the point at which cultural fluidity is valuable, crossing over into a semi-homogenous din of mashed up ideas that mostly do not make sense when taken as a whole (if you can even figure out where the whole is). There is a balance to be struck here between maintaining local cultural identity and maintaining occasional flow of ideas between culture.

A direct biological analogy to this cultural balance exists. Species of organisms also need to strike this balance in order to survive for long periods of time. If there is too much “outbreeding” (hybridizing of genes with distantly-related populations), a population may begin to lose its distinct adaptive features that allow it to persist in its local environment. In fact, speciation — the process by which a single species breaks into two separate species — seems to occur whenever two environments present such different challenges that hybridization is a supreme disadvantage. Barriers to gene exchange actually facilitates innovation, as the two separated populations are free to evolve novel adaptations once freed from the conflicting selective pressures experienced by their respective sister population. If every species of organisms was capable of mating with every other species, the results would not be good (if you value survival and reproduction).

And while too much outbreeding is problematic in biological systems, too much “inbreeding” (hybridizing genes with closely-related populations) is also maladaptive. This is because inbreeding reduces genetic variation, leading to an increase in the short-term of diseases that arise from the total loss of a critical function and to a decrease in the long-term flexibility of the population to adapt to environmental fluctuations. In order to be stable, species need strike a balance between the influx of novel variation and the maintenance of local characteristics.

What we might call “cultures” are a bit like species. This analogy could be taken too far and too literally, but I do think that whole cultures, like species, maintain a pool of ideas that are similar to the gene pool maintained by a biological population. And like the network of genes that make up genomes, cultural complexes are composed of highly-interactive networks of ideas. Some genes work better together in particular genetic networks, and some ideas work better together in particular cultural networks. In order to maintain a stable culture, there needs to be a balance struck between maintaining local cultural identity and bringing in new ideas. If ideas are limited we risk being isolated and thus may lack the ability to adapt to a changing environment. But with too much transmission of culture, we risk becoming a monolithic society incapable of real innovation. Sometimes being isolated from the constant bombardment of outside ideas is good: it is much easier for a unique culture to evolve when its ideas are free to create their own context and do not have to rise above a din of competing ideas.

In my own cultural experience I have witnessed two examples which suggest that cultural evolution has been slowed by hybridization. I would freely admit that I have not taken a systematic approach to analyzing either of these examples, and my personal/emotional connection to these cultures certainly calls into question my subjectivity. But with that said, I still think that I am on to something.

My first example is that of skateboarding culture. Although it was kicking around in the 1950’s and 1960’s, skateboarding culture really exploded in the late 1970’s, the 1980’s, and the early 1990’s. In that time the nature of how a skateboard was used radically shifted. Starting with a simple plank of wood with two rollerskate trucks attached and ending with a diverse array of use-specific skateboard designs, the skateboard as a material object evolved rapidly in this time. But this material evolution of a “tool” flowed directly from a great flowering of the ideas in the heads of skateboarders that described how that tool should be constructed and used. The invention of ways to ride a skateboard across vertical surfaces like ramps and pools, followed by the explosion of “street skating” using common urban objects as obstacles, pushed the design of the skateboard to keep up with the new ways that people used their skateboards. Ideas diversified and prospered in the skateboard revolution.

Why did this happen? Well, it would be easy to attribute this innovation to the influx of diverse ideas. The original idea of skateboarding was borrowed from the culture of surfing, as “sidewalk surfers” found a new way to translate the ideas of surfing onto concrete surfaces. But I also think that an equally potent force of cultural evolution in skateboarding was isolation. Every innovative phase of skateboarding emerged from tiny pockets of local culture that used their isolation as a means of adapting new ways of using the skateboard. In skateboarding there are “factions” — analogous to musical “genres” — that fiercely protected their local culture. Street skaters had a different style and attitude than vertical skaters. They developed their own local cultures, so much so that it was important to identify yourself with one culture and isolate yourself from others. The locality of ideas made this innovative isolation possible. Particular styles of skating could flourish because old styles were left in the past and hard to recover and because regional cultures maintained their geographical uniqueness.

In the mid-nineties, skateboarding stopped evolving culturally. It is kind of weird how the skateboarding of today is no different than the skateboarding of fifteen years ago: especially given the rapid progression that occurred for nearly twenty years prior. Skateboarding has now become a static entity, with the same ideas about what skateboarding is and how a skateboard should be used floating around. This can even be seen in the commercial culture of skateboarding, where the names used to sell skateboarding equipment twenty years ago are still being used to sell equipment today. A forty-year-old skateboard professional in 1985? That just was not going to happen, because the sport was evolving to fast. Today it is commonplace.

Why exactly skateboarding hit a cultural evolution plateau is debatable. One argument would be that it reached its potential, exploring all the ways that a skateboard could be used and then leveling off in innovation as opportunities for novel applications diminished. This might be part of the story, but I do not think that it is the whole story. I contend that the internet caused the arrested cultural development of skateboarding. Although there is no way for me to know where skateboarding might have gone had the internet not dramatically expanded the connection between different pockets of skateboard culture, I predict it would have continued to explore new cultural variations if not for the web. Why? Well what happened with the advent of the internet was the breakdown of local skateboarding culture. Whereas before limited exposure to the way a skateboard was used in your local area would have constrained how one used one’s skateboard — an isolation that simultaneously allowed new variations to persist locally — now every skateboarder gained access to the tricks and techniques of skaters worldwide. Interestingly this process had already begun with the proliferation of “skateboard videos” in the 1980’s and 1990’s, but the advent of internet video has completely broken down boundaries of local skateboard style. Using the internet, one can now see all of the ways that a skateboard is being used. This quantity of ideas is at once both empowering to the individual skater (whose world view is now much broader) and stifling to cultural innovation (because wide boundaries for what constitutes “skateboarding” have now been delineated by what exists on the internet). Skateboarding as a sport is alive and well like never before, but local skateboarding culture is dead. With the death of local skateboarding culture comes the death of innovation.

My second example is that of the culture of rebel music. I do not love the term “rebel music” but it is the best term I can come up with to describe a variety of related forms. For me, my “rebel music” was the DIY hardcorepunk music of the late 1980’s and the 1990’s. Like skateboarding, this musical culture flourished just before the internet age. From what I can tell it suffered a similar fate as skateboarding: innovation stopped as soon as local culture was disrupted by the unbridled transfer of ideas over the internet. As with skateboarding it was the locality of these music cultures that spurred innovation. Now that this locality is gone these musical scenes have not lost their robustness but they have ceased to produce innovative new culture.

Musical culture has been dramatically changed by a breakdown of temporal locality. This process began long ago with the invention of written music, accelerated further as music could be recorded, and is complete now that music can be shared digitally. When I was growing up there were certainly persistent musical forms: a substantial number of kids who I went to high school with loved bands from the 1960’s and 1970’s, an anachronism that seemed impossible for me to understand from my firm place in the 1980’s. But because of the fragile nature of the media on which music was stored (records and tapes mostly), maintaining a connection to past forms of music took some effort. A few prominent bands from by-gone eras were “kept in press”, but most music passed into obscurity, inaccessible to those making music in the present. I contend that this was good for innovation. The lack of broad access to all musical forms meant that the local form was free to evolve without having to fit into the context created by either the broad history of music or the diverse global forms of music that existed in other regions. Local music begot local styles.

Today music is completely transformed. To someone who grew up so conscious of what era a particular form of music emerged from, the current landscape of timeless music is a bit shocking and very overwhelming. My daughter’s generation (she is now eight years old) sees no distinction between The Beatles and today’s hot new single: it is all part of their musical mix. Musical genre is for the most part dead, and if it is still alive it is historical in nature. We live in an era of musical recombination, of the mash-up, the hybrid society. I am not saying that this never produces pleasing ‘new’ music: I just worry that we will never see another truly distinctive musical form emerge again.

In a way you can call me disappointed. As a connoisseur of subcultures that did a fabulous job of offending the cultural sensitivity of older folks, I was excited to sit back and be shocked and offended by innovative new forms of culture that took forms I could scarcely imagine from my old-fogey perspective. My assumption that I would be challenged by the unique cultural complexes created by future generations was wrong, and I blame the internet and the hybrid culture that it produces. With that said I am interested in being proved wrong. Maybe it is me who is no longer tapped into the underground, and I judge from a position of ignorance. If you can point to a non-hybridized, innovative cultural complex that has emerged in recent time, I want to know about it.

But if I am right, I believe that there are profound consequences of living in a hybrid society. Looking at my examples of skateboarding and rebel music, a skeptic might suggest that loss of innovation in these subcultures is unlikely to really matter for humanity as a whole. But I disagree: although the world might not really implode if a particular sport or musical genre disappeared, it would be dramatically changed if these subcultural identities ceased to exist. I do not care so much about particular subcultures themselves but the unique individuals carrying around distinct sets of ideas that they produce. When we all have exposure to all the ideas that ever were, where does novelty come from?

Cultural Evolution, Speciation

Leave a Reply