Cultural Agency

Talking about culture from a complex systems standpoint requires a bit of inductive leap of faith as follows. If you buy the argument that agents emerge from agents (and interactions thereof) at lower levels, then it is clear that there is some level of agency above individual humans.* What we call this level varies according to who is telling the story and what the thrust of their thesis is: population, culture, society, memetics, economy, zeitgeist, etc. The reality is that all of these levels (and more) co-exist, and we are talking about interlocking systems at varying “partial levels” with dynamic, and only loosely constrained, information flow. Nonetheless, there are common elements and properties that we can discuss that are at the very least distinct from the realm of an isolated individual human being.

Laszlo Diagram - Socio-technical Levels

From The Chaos Point. Reproduced with permission from the author.

If we restrict ourselves to considering a sub-class of systems at the “cultural level”, we can take lessons and generalize more clearly from there. Richard Dawkins introduced the concept of a meme as a cultural unit of heredity analogous to the gene, and since that time there have been many attempts to expound on memetic theory, with varying degrees of rigor and predictive/descriptive success. The most complete and compelling thesis I have come across is Durham’s Coevolution, which develops and gives strong supporting evidence to the notion that culture (as represented by the total population of memes in society), co-evolves with the population of genes in the “gene pool”. While this may seem like a somewhat trivial finding, in fact, it is rather profound and it forces us to update our enduring precepts of Darwinian evolution**

One interesting point of gene-meme co-evolution is the sheer distance (in terms of numbers of levels) between the two different units of heredity involved. Of course, by focusing just on genes and memes, we oversimplify and ignore the interconnected dynamics and evolution occurring at all the levels in between. For instance, it is often overlooked that genotype — the level(s) of/near DNA — and phenotype — the level(s) of/near living organism — co-evolve, albeit it within much tighter bounds. In fact, there is such a close (almost isomorphic) relationship between genotype-phenotype co-evolution, that we often identify the two as one and the same process, but they are not. We need only look at genetically identical twins — who exhibit vastly different behaviors — to see the difference between genetic evolution and phenotypic evolution. Still, the distinction between genotype-phenotype evolution is not nearly as great as the distinction between genotype-memotype evolution, as evidenced by the fact that prior to Durham it was assumed by most that they were completely independent phenomena, and prior to Dawkins that they were not even in the same class of phenomena (i.e. evolution).

It is important to bear in mind that while culture emerges from (and in co-evolves with) beliefs and values contained in individual human minds, they are not one and the same. The relationship is that of genotype (individual beliefs/values) and phenotype (cultural memes). But individuals die, and culture persists, thrives and evolves regardless of — and beyond the control of — any one individual.

Socio-Technological Agency

The “bluriness” of the lines between levels is never so apparent as here. Socio-technology simply refers to a system which contains both cultural and technological information. As of yet, technology does not yet generally create itself (ala “artificial intelligence”), and is always embedded in a social/cultural context. Thus we need not consider technology in isolation, since much of the richness of the model is derived from the social context under which technology is created and is used. Similarly, ever since the invention of writing, visual arts and toolmaking, culture cannot truly be considered in the absence of technology. Memes, for instance are transmitted most often in modern society through mass media like television, movies, printed word, and the internet. Yes, memes were transmitted long before technology arose, and have been observed to exist in primates and other highly evolved species. But the proliferation and evolution of memes has accelerated in lock-step with technological innovation. To my mind, social and technological systems co-evolve at such similar rates and with such interactivity as to behave quite like symbiotic species, in which one does not thrive without the other.

* Actually more than one, and as always, levels are not totally discrete and monotonically hierarchical, but rather partially overlapping and partially ordered.

** Ironically, Darwin himself was much less restrictive about the applicability of evolutionary theory than we are today.