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Hermann-Pillath on Cultural Science – A Summary of Notes

By thomaspetzold | June 19, 2009

Having finished our group reading exercise on one of the foundations of cultural science, here is a summary of notes on Carsten’s draft book manuscript ‘The Economics of Identity and Creativity’ (UQ Press, forthcoming). Notes have been deliberately taken in headword-style to cover, at a glance, the definitions of ‘cultural science’ as well as important associated keywords such as creativity, language, knowledge and identity (NB: 99% are Carsten’s own words and phrasings).

Cultural Science

_is a special branch of evolutionary theory that deals with the evolution of collectknowledge in networks of human brains, mediated by artefacts, in particular language

_investigates into the causes and mechanisms of the generation and the diffusion of knowledge embodied in collectives of individuals and artefacts

_describes and classifies emergent patterns in the evolution of those collectives

_avoids political value statements

_adopts a naturalistic perspective on meaning

_approaches cultural meaning as an emergent property of interaction in the material world

_builds on a generalised co-evolutionary interpretation of Darwinism

_argues that the capacity for culture has evolved according to the Darwinian logic, but resulted into the emergence of culture as an independent domain because this independence was functional in an evolutionary context

_is closely affiliated with the analysis of language (from the philosophy of language to linguistics)

_is very receptive to actor-network theory (ATN)

_denies the very possibility to separate analytically between a ‘within brain/mind’ rationally and the embedding structures

Creativity

_is seen as an irreducible property of a collective, the network

_is an essential aspect of cultural evolution, in the sense that the latter continuously generates new knowledge

_is a cultural phenomenon by necessity, because all creative acts change the identities of other entities beyond the carriers of the act

_is seen as a property of evolving networks of individuals and things related to them in simple terms, creativity is a collective phenomenon, and it involves the role of things as mediators of human action, as they are external forms of knowledge

Identity

_is not a psychological one but an ontological one and needs elementary philosophical treatment

_is a crossing point of complex interactions both synchronically and diachronically, and it defines the individual as an agent

_is the most basic concept for defining the individual

_boils down to the problem of how individuals and populations relate

_is an essential functioning in terms of control in complex networks with other individuals

_is continuously evolving

Naturalism

_means that we can use methods and models of the natural sciences to understand and explain cultural phenomena

_as a philosophical position is to adopt evolutionary theory as a general framework for cultural analysis

Knowledge

_is seen in the light of naturalism, i.e. not the mentalist approach but the externalist one where the human mind is not limited to the brain, but emerges from the interaction between brain and environment

_encompasses all kinds of explicit and tacit knowledge, and includes the playful generation of knowledge

_ is an aspect of systems, but not as a mental state. It is a property of proper systems functioning, emerging from an evolutionary process

Language

_is the main causal chain linking up human brains

_the human L consists of two fundamental facts: 1. the syntax of language allows for a limitless combination of elements, 2. the emergence of new elements, hence, meaning

_is a repository of cristallisations of conceptual blends. In language, the role of blending comes out from the working of metaphors in the process of semantic evolution

_is a repository of physical triggers of neuromemetic evolution. It is a cause of structured and reproducible processes, but it is not identical to these processes. (This is precisely the reason why meanings appear to be so fluid and open to continuous reinterpretation.

_On the first sight, the emergence of language multiplies the original dilemma of cooperation. However, this also means that evolution must have supported the emergence of a capacity to solve these additional dilemmas of language.

Topics: cultural science | No Comments »

Journalists & Changing Identity

By johnbanks | April 21, 2009

At yesterday’s cultural science workshop we discussed the concept of changing identity that Carsten Herrmann-Pillath develops in “The Economics of Identity and Creativity: A Cultural Science Approach” . This New York Times article (“J-Schools Play Catchup” about teaching journalism when the field is undergoing profound and sweeping transformation is precisely about the changing identity of journalists:

“it requires a new vocabulary, a new relationship with the audience — a massive social network that now talks back — and, sometimes, a new set of expectations about objectivity and timeliness.”

Brian Stelte asks, “how do you position students for an uncertain future in the media?”. Some journalism schools are teaching an ethos of innovation and entrepreneurial spirit (eg. the entrepreneurship course taught by Dan Gillmor at Arizona State). In conditions of uncertainty and precarity give your students the tools to deal with it.

Topics: cultural science | No Comments »

Data Visualisation

By jeanburgess | April 20, 2009

We’ve had some interesting chats around QUT lately about data visualisation, including the need for tools that make it easier to comprehend and work with large, complex data sets; and also how  diversity in data representation (including creative visualisation techniques) can help us to recast research problems and the assumptions that underlie them.

There are a couple of great repositories for data visualisation projects that I know of. One that you probably know already is Visual Complexity, which aims to “leverage a critical understanding of different visualization methods, across a series of disciplines, as diverse as Biology, Social Networks or the World Wide Web.”

There is also Information Aesthetics, which covers everything from infographics that aim to make complex information easier to understand, all the way through to the burgeoning field of free online social data visualisaton tools. One of the best-known of the latter is Many Eyes – an IBM-sponsored project that aims to “democratize visualization” – “enabling anyone on the internet to publish powerful interactive visualizations and start their own data conversations”. Information Aesthetics this week also reviews a new one of those called Verifiable.

Lots to play with and explore.

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The Business of User-Created Content

By johnbanks | April 20, 2009

A nice article in Slate about the so far failing business of user-generated content:
“Do You Think Bandwidth Grows on Tress?” Farhad Manjoo notes that social network sites like Youtube are “suffocating under the costs of storing it” and that “‘User-generated content’ is proving to be a financial albatross.” Of course the business of user-created content is uneven across the creative industries – it is arguable that games companies are doing well out of titles such as Spore and LittleBigPlanet. Although, still very difficult to estimate the value of user-created content generated by gamers. Does all of this validate Benkler’s argument that much of this is fundamentally a non-market phenomenon driven by non-commercial motivations. Or is this simply an example of disruptive innovation that business is still figuring out how to do well – i.e the markets, business models, firm processes and modes of organisation etc. are still emerging around user-created content?

So how can the approach that we’re calling Cultural Science contribute to these debates and discussions. How does Carsten Herrmann_Pillath’s “The Economics of Identity and Creativity: A Cultural Science Approach” help us to grapple with these issues? Perhaps posing this as an either/or is part of the problem and the salient point is that this is a dynamic and co-evolving relationship between the cultural and the economic. But a lot of work needs to be done to unpack what we mean by co-evolving here.

Thanks to Josh Green for pointing out this article via Twitter.

Topics: creative destruction, cultural science | No Comments »

The Quants and Wall Street

By johnbanks | April 14, 2009

An interesting New York Times article on physicists and other scientists working for Wall Street firms (“They Tried to Outsmart Wall Street” : “Seduced by a vision of mathematical elegance underlying some of the messiest of human activities, they apply skills they once hoped to use to untangle string theory or the nervous system to making money.” Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan, comments that “I think physicists should go back to the physics department and leave Wall Street alone,” But his argument seems to be not that science shouldn’t be used just that this particular brand of science gets it wrong.

It is also worthwhile reading Nasim Taleb’s article for Edge: “The Fourth Quadrant: A Map of the Limits of Statistics”

Topics: cultural science | No Comments »

‘economics of identity & creativity’ – some thoughts on part 1

By jasonpotts | March 27, 2009

As John and John have noted, we are now several weeks into our group reading exercise on one of the foundations of cultural science – namely ‘Economics of identity and creativity’, and we are going to start threading our discussion of Carsten’s great book through this blog. I want to draw attention to what I think is the most interesting implication and idea in part 1 of the book.

First, some context. On page 5, CHP writes ‘The methodological consequence of naturalism as a philosophical position is to adopt evolutionary theory as a general framework for cultural analysis’.  I am in deep agreement with this methodological perspective. Chapters 1 -3 are logically constructed along these lines, and I find little to quibble with.

Indeed, I think this is very similar to the Dopfer and Potts (2008) framework in ‘The general theory of economic evolution’. There are points where I might use some different terminology, or draw some somewhat different emphasis, but we are mostly (perhaps 99%) on the same page. (Note by ‘very similar’ I mean to infer that most who have thought about these issues deeply have arrived at very similar conclusions – namely the foundation stone in naturalism and its evolutionary implications. This is the ‘naturalistic turn’ in the study of culture.)

The initial naturalistic centring of language ‘as a central phenomenon in this interaction between brain and world’ is a good place to start. It creates an ontology of signs. It would not have occured to me to do that, but I think it works very well, as becomes apparent in chapter 4.

The relevant passages are across pages 59-60.

CHP introduces the concept of signal selection theory, over an economy of signs, with meaning as a continusouly evolving outcome. He says ‘any kind of organismic trait can serve both an adaptive function with relation to the physical environment and a signalling function with respect to other living systems. In other words, the divergence between meaning and function emerges from the fact that life is a system of distributed information processing.’ 

This is the key idea so far, I believe. Upon this we can constuct a cultural science based around signal selection theory, with both functional selection and meaning selection. (Like natural selection and sexual selection).

As an example of this, Carsten points to ‘social network markets’, which I think this is a very useful interpretation of the idea.

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Herrmann-Pillath on Cultural Science: The methodological implications of non-reductive naturalism?

By johnbanks | March 26, 2009

This Monday we completed the second session of the reading group working our way through Carsten Herrmann-Pillath’s The Economics of Identity and Creativity: A Cultural Science Approach. My first thoughts are WOW! OK I know, such an exclamation doesn’t do much to advance critical discussion of this draft work. It is daunting, provocative and exciting. Reading through the material I’ve often felt completely out of my depth as Carsten develops the naturalist and externalist foundations for cultural science drawing from philosophy of science, evolutionary science, neurosciences, etc. I’m convinced by his argument for a naturalisation of culture with the fundamental understanding that this is a non-reductive and non-essentialist take on this. It isn’t sociobiology or the very reductive forms of evolutionary psychology. This proposal for an evolutionary approach to understanding and explaining culture carefully notes the quite distinct and particular nature of these processes at the level of culture. These are crucial points as the common immediate reaction from humanities colleagues (cultural studies and media studies) to the idea of cultural science is I think often due to their concerns and preconceptions about such forms of biological reductionism. There is a lot of work to do just unpacking the implications of this proposal for a non-reductive naturalist approach to culture. I guess that’s what the cultural science project is about. In fact I think that cultural science as elucidated by Carsten may well provide more rigour to our ongoing debates with reductionist behavioral explanations of culture. I think this is apparent in Carsten’s convincing rejection of the methodological individualism characterising neo-classical economics.

I’m also very comfortable with the connection made throughout many key sections of the draft with Bruno Latour’s work and with actor-network theory (ANT) more generally. I think this strengthens Carsten’s argument for externalism. We spent a considerable part of Monday’s session discussing the relationship of these ideas of externalism that Carsten develops with ANT. A good few of us expressed interest in reading more from ANT and headed of to explore Latour’s Reassembling the Social. I’ve returned to this work a good few times as I worked my way through Carsten’s draft. I’ve particularly found the connection he makes with Latour’s distinction between mediators and intermediaries crucial for understanding the particular approach to externalism, networks, agency, creativity and identity that Carsten develops.

So my concerns or worries. First, I just don’t have a strong enough background in many of the sciences that Carsten discusses to make any kind of informed evaluation about the various debates and theories that this work engages with. For example, my sense from the little reading I’ve done thus far is that the core externalist proposition is quite contentious in many of these domains and probably somewhat of a minority position. Carsten acknowledges this at various points in the document. This isn’t an objection to the work and probably just means that I need to commit time to studying-up on this material, but it does present a kind of threshold problem for many humanities scholars. Second, I wonder and worry about the implications of all this for the way I do my work as a humanities scholar – this is a point about the methodologies and knowledge practices of the humanities.

To develop this second point about methodology in more detail I want to take a slight detour towards relatively recent work by Barbara Herrnstein Smith, a literary critical theorist, she wrote the influential Contingencies of Value back in 1991. Anyway, for the past decade or so she has been thinking away at the problematic relationship between the sciences and the humanities and describes herself as sympathetic to non-reductive naturalist efforts to explain culture. She gave a lecture series in 2006 on this topic in the context of recent efforts in the field of evolutionary psychology to explain religion. You can view the lectures here. Over the course of the series she develops careful and critical readings of works such as Pascal Boyer’s (2002) Religion Explained, Scott Atran’s (2002) In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion and Walter Burkert’s earlier (1998) Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religions. In these lectures (appears she is working on a book covering these issues) Herrnstein Smith raises many concerns about naturalist approaches to explaining culture. For example, she worries about the pretensions of a kind of scientism that perhaps just isn’t suitable to humanities forms of knowledge practice. But through all of this she remains sympathetic to non-reductive naturalist approaches and encourages the humanities to engage with such work. She does, however, pull up short from calling this a scientific approach to culture.

One of her criticisms is that these evolutionary psychology approaches generally argue that to merit the status of a rigorously scientific account the research needs to identify underlying causal mechanisms. She appears to argue that this is a somewhat dubious mode of explanation in the context of human culture. Here she asks what happens to the value and status of humanities accounts, which are generally interpretative and enriched through ethnographic methodologies, for example, with thick descriptions that just don’t fit into this causal mechanism approach. She refers to this as something like the “impropriety” of narrow scientific reductionist accounts that seem to characterise methodological naturalism.  She also suggests that such approaches struggle to come to terms with the “scrappy” “patchwork” and often “logically contradictory” characteristics of human behaviour and cultural practice.

Now my worry is her observation that such naturalist explanatory approaches have very little time or respect for the value of anthropological, ethnographic, ‘emic’ approaches to knowledge i.e. the whole inside-participant viewpoint approaches. These interpretative approaches (she includes historical accounts) would appear to be radically incommensurable with natural science approaches. She notes that the intellectual products of these very different traditions just cannot be assessed by the same measures and standards as ‘scientific explanation’.  They are in her terms “untranslatable into the methods of science”.  She spends quite some time unpacking these methodological differences. She ends up proposing something like a humanities informed by evolutionary and non-reductive naturalist approaches. She points out that accounts of culture grounded in such a framework can be broadly naturalistic without being scientistic. They can, as she puts it, “provide models of the emergence of phenomenon from the dynamic interactions of multiple forces and contingent events” (this might not be an exact quotation from the lecture). This appears to align quite well with many of the propositions advanced in your draft for what we’re calling cultural science?

This post is already a little long and I’ll leave it here for now. Returning to Carsten’s work, my sense is that the externalism and non-reductive naturalism implies there is room and value for these broadly humanities methodologies. I have a few views on this that develop from ANT, but will leave that for another post. Carsten, perhaps you could clarify for me that your proposal of cultural science doesn’t exclude the experiences and interpretations of participants from valid naturalistic accounts of cultural practice? Also, what are the methodological implications of cultural science? I recall in the draft you do address issues such as etic and emic distinctions but am interested in drawing you out a little more on this. I’m also keen to hear what others think about this question of cultural science, non-reductive naturalism, externalism and methodolgy.

For more on Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s views on these issues see:

Cognitive Machinery and Explanatory Ambitions

A Cognitive Revolution? Naturalism, otherwise

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Have you herd?

By alexbentley | March 14, 2009

One of our challenges is to understand how herd-like behaviour, the topic of frenzied financial conversations since last October, integrates with our knowledge of social groups. In other words, if herding is important (or only exceptional), why such discrete, vastly different social groups out there? Surely they have been seeking different ideals, i.e., not herding themselves toward the same thing?

Not a moment too soon, a new PNAS paper by Helbing and Wu relates random imitation to the emergence of discrete groups of cooperation. Their model has elements of undirected copying models, including copying and random mutation, with the additional element of spatial migration. It’s the migration that allows cooperative strategies to cluster. Intriguingly they can evolve cooperation without the classic ‘costly punishment‘ or reputation factors that used to be seen as necessary to evolve cooperation. In other words, we can now  explain more via the Herd than ever – even our differences.

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reading group

By JohnHartley | March 10, 2009

Hello World. We’ve been quiet on the Cultural Science site for a while, but behind the scenes things have been moving fast.

Carsten Herrmann-Pillath has written the first draft of a book for the UQP series that Stuart Cunningham and I are editing. A group of us at QUT-CCI want to read and comment on the draft as a way to clarify and develop our own approach to cultural science. We plan to use this blog to exchange comments. Anyone can join in.

Want to read “The Economics of Identity and Creativity: A Cultural Science Approach?

The draft manuscript is over on the “papers/publications” page of Cultural Science.  (Go to cultural-science home, click on papers/publications, look under “Draft Papers for Comment” and there is Carsten’s draft).  Please note this is a work in progress – not for citation. Carsten welcomes feedback.

Our group is going to read the manuscript over a five week period, a couple of chapters at a time, and hopefully remember to post comments here. We also welcome comments from interested readers elsewhere.

Watch this space!

Topics: cultural science | No Comments »

The strange suddenness of the transformation of global capitalism

By carstenherrmannpillath | October 15, 2008

The financial crisis takes a direction that makes observers stand in awe before the wonders of human history. Only a couple of weeks ago, nobody would have expected that currently we face a fundamental transformation of global capitalism: From now on, there will be heavy involvement of governments in the management of financial systems and, even more amazing, of financial organizations. There is a strong dose of micro-management mixed up with macro-regulation. In my native country, this transition, for example, implies that the government will even interfere with micro-managing the incentive structures in commercial banks.

This is really astounding. Until now, the average mainstream opinion in economics was to reject any kind of government ownership scheme as highly inefficient. In a recent blog entry, I wrote that China will become the vanguard of global capitalism. Well, right now the Western financial systems seem to converge into the direction of the Chinese one, in the sense that the latter is continuously increasing private ownership components (e.g. through share offereings). Thus, the two might end up somewhere in the middle. That’s why so many observers talk about the end of the era of unfettered free markets, the end of the era which was inaugurated by the iron lady and Ronald Reagan.

This is certainly a phenomenon that deserves close attention by cultural science, as it is mainly an abrupt change of perceptions and cognitive models. As an economist, I wonder why even this, albeit very serious crisis should have changed even some basic propositions of economics. What were the root causes of the financial crisis? Following up an earlier blog entry, I think just three. Firstly, a lack of personal liability on part of the central decision makers in the banking industry, in the sense that incentive schemes in the financial sector greatly rewarded success, but could not, in any serious sense, create personal liability for the losses, given the gigantic stakes involved, as we now see. Secondly, shareholder value thinking implies that leveraging is always the most profitable strategy in wealth maximization, because the higher the leverage, the higher the profits of equity capital invested. Thirdly, there were the paradoxa of rationality and coordination that I described in the earlier blog. Does increased government involvement solve any of these problems? The answer is, no.

This is because government involvement does not change the lack of personal liability in the financial sector at large. Government is nothing but a very limited liability organization. In Germany, the most troubled cases of financial distress were related with public banks. Government involvement even further enhances the problems with limited personal responsibility, unless the organization turns into a truly bureaucratic one. But precisely this were the socialist state banks of the past. Further, also the government, as a shareholder, will be attracted by the possible profits of increased leverage in the future. This is how capitalism works, in the sense of efficacy and growth.

That means, the amazing fact is that even the banking industry suddenly believes in the virtues of government intervention. This should avert a total collapse of the global financial system. But the crucial problem is lack of trust among banks, thus a drying up of liquidity. The real question is, why is the solution not taken within the financial sector, which, after all, includes the central banks? For the economist, government-funded rescue packages ultimately are the same as printing money. The explosion of government debt will affect interest rates, which will bring central banks into the dilemma to avoid recession by inflationary monetary expansion. The government will be happy, in the end, to get rid of the debt by taxing the citizens via the inflation tax. All this is just mainstream economics stuff, not at all cultural science and evolutionary economics. But why turned these arguments irrelevant within just a few weeks? Why is rescue expected from government intervention into the banking industry, and not from a coordinated action of central banks worldwide, under the auspices of the IMF, for example? The situation is catastrophic, yes, but don’t forget that there is no objective measure of the real mess in the financial system. The number of loans going bust is endogenous to the course of things. If a recession deepens, so will the state of the financial system worsen, and no government can change that.The same argument appiles in the reverse: The better the economic outlook, the more healthy will the balance sheets look like. I do not wish to base the entire argument on Mertonian self-fulfilling expectations, but I think that in this case collective action within the banking industry could have done the job as well.

So we are all Keynesians now? Or, another K-economist, Krugmanians? Does the Nobel award call for a new new deal, this time a global one, merging capitalism and socialism? (that’s the Bejing consensus, right?)

I think that the real story behind the crisis may end up to be a cultural one. American culture wars play a role in that story. The world was mentally prepared to see things different. China is challenging our established views about economy and society. There are other challenges, but the China challenge is central because it is a cultural challenge as well as an economic challenge, given China’s success. This kind of mental preparedness caused the sudden demise of free-market doctrines in applied policies, and it may have played a crucial role in the landslide changes at Wall Street industrial organization. Maybe it’s like the Emperor’s clothes. Everybody was tired of a system, and now everybody could come out with her or his true inclinations. It’s all fads and fashions, and some depressions and joys are the real thing.

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