Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Cultural attractors

I'm not exactly breaking any speed records getting through my scan of the responses to Edge.org's annual question of the year - "What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?" Here is one more:

Dan Sperber - Cultural Attractors
In 1967, Richard Dawkins introduced the idea of a meme: a unit of cultural transmission capable of replicating itself and of undergoing Darwinian selection...I want to suggest that the concept of a meme should be, if not replaced, at least supplemented with that of a cultural attractor.

...bits of culture — memes if you want to dilute the notion and call them that — remain self-similar not because they are replicated again and again but because variations that occur at almost every turn in their repeated transmission, rather than resulting in "random walks" drifting away in all directions from an initial model, tend to gravitate around cultural attractors. Ending Little Red Riding Hood when the wolf eats the child would make for a simpler story to remember, but a Happy Ending is too powerful a cultural attractor.

...Why should there be cultural attractors at all? Because there are in our minds, our bodies, and our environment biasing factors that affect the way we interpret and re-produce ideas and behaviors...When these biasing factors are shared in a population, cultural attractors emerge.

...Rounded numbers are cultural attractors: they are easier to remember and provide better symbols for magnitudes. So, we celebrate twentieth wedding anniversaries, hundredth issue of journals, millionth copy sold of a record, and so on.

...In the diffusion of techniques and artifacts, efficiency is a powerful cultural attractor...Much more than faithful replication, this attraction of efficiency when there aren't that many ways of being efficient, explains the cultural stability (and also the historical transformations) of various technical traditions.

...And what is the attractor around which the "meme" meme gravitate? The meme idea — or rather a constellation of trivialized versions of it — has become an extraordinarily successful bit of contemporary culture not because it has been faithfully replicated again and again, but because our conversation often does revolve — and here is the cultural attractor — around remarkably successful bits of culture that, in the time of mass media and the internet, pop up more and more frequently and are indeed quite relevant to our understanding of the world we live in.

1 comment:

  1. Successful is what works and what works has functional structure. What you talk about however, is functional structuring at different levels, both inside the mind and outside of it. The efficiency however, is not so much what attracts imho, but the reality behind it, which apparently CAN be realized from- and valued by (cultural) intuitions.