Saturday, 3 August 2013

Machines have culture too

It seems like a fairly simple and straightforwards prediction of memetics that there will be a memetic takeover. The "one-size fits all" strategy of DNA will soon have had its day - and we are likely to enter a new era dominated by intelligently designed genotypes and phenotypes, which will displace most of the existing players in modern ecosystems.

Such a possibility has been recognised by Susan Blackmore, Richard Dawkins, Evan Louis Sheehan - and various other students of memes. However, cultural evolution theorists in academia mostly seem to be blindsided with respect to this topic. No doubt some of this is down to sheer conservatism, but:

One problem is the focus on the distant past. Cultural evolution in academia seems to have mostly been looking at events in prehistory that affected the evolution of modern humans. Machines seem to be too recent a phenomena to be considered in most papers on the topic.

Some authors explicitly focus their attention on the human actors involved - e.g. here are Boyd and Richerson on page 7 of Culture and the Evolutionary Process:

This does not mean that cultures have mysterious lives of their own that cause them to evolve independently of the individuals of which they are composed. As in the case of genetic evolution, individuals are the primary locus of the evolutionary forces that cause cultural evolution and in modelling cultural evolution we will focus on observable events in the lives of individuals.
This is hardly an attitude that lends itself well to thinking about the evolution of cultural artifacts such as machines - except perhaps in the old-fashioned manner of "machines are our tools" and "computers will do what we tell them".

It is the job of science to make future predictions. Cultural evolution theorists should be uniquely well place to be able to forsee these coming changes. Participants need to dust off their copies of Genetic Takeover and Mind Children, put two and two together.

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