The Participatory Age
Of central interest to Alberto, and to cultural evolutionists in general, are the impacts of the transmission of cultural information from one person to the next—what is transmitted to whom, where and how and when, and what fails to be—and how this shapes our behaviors and the world we live in. Yet, there would be no information to transmit if this information was not generated in the first place. Information generation—invention, content creation, introduction of novel variation, you choose—is a necessary ingredient for any process of (and theory of) cultural evolution (Charbonneau, 2015). Although particularities of the production of information in the digital medium can be detected at every step of the book’s arguments, the key question of who produces novel content, why they do so, what they produce and how, are not directly addressed, and importantly these questions are not part of Alberto’s assessment when comparing the application of cultural evolutionary theory to the pre-digital and digital worlds. I want to focus on this aspect of cultural evolution—the generation of cultural items, information, content, you choose—and do so by re-reading some of the important ideas developed in the last two chapters, Transmitting and Sharing and Cumulation, this time not by focusing on transmission, as Alberto does, but instead by thinking about the question of the generation of novel cultural information.
A tech-savvy time traveler from 25 years ago would not be very surprised by how much more connected we are and how much more faithful digital technologies are nowadays. They would certainly be excited by it, but not surprised. (There were already a lot of curves predicting this change back then.) What would be shocking to them—to my mind—is how the ease of access, sophistication, and diversity of content production tools have transcended their specialist use and have become widespread and of common, daily use. Today, in a few flexions of your thumb and with little expertise in photography techniques, you can produce pictures and alter their composition, luminance, color palette, contrast, saturation, sharpness, etc., processes of creation that not so long ago would have required hours in a sophisticated chemical lab, but also, and as importantly, a lot of training and mastering of the techniques required to produce such results. The technical route to artsy pictures has been considerably shorten (Charbonneau, 2018). And the same for many more forms of cultural items—videos, music, software, material objects (think schematics for 3D printers), and so on.
Our time traveler, coming from a Web 1.0 world, would be surprised by the Web 2.0 we now live in, a digital world emphasizing “user-generated content, ease of use, participatory culture and interoperability (i.e., compatibility with other products, systems, and devices) for end users.” What this Web 2.0 philosophy focuses on is not only on easing the transmission and sharing of information—these are its backbones, certainly—but mainly on motivating and allowing digital users to produce content. It does so (1) by providing and easing access to creative, content generation tools (accessibility) and (2) by developing interfaces allowing their modular combination in order to increase the type of content that can be produced (interoperability) (Charbonneau, 2016). Alberto makes little mention of this central feature of today’s web, yet the whole discussion of his book is laid over a Web 2.0 background.
One specific type of transmitted information that does not receive much direct attention in Alberto’s project, one that is central to the generative (invention) process, is the transmission of digital tools, in the form of operating systems (Windows, IOS, Android), applications (word and image editors, software development tools, etc.), applications within applications (extensions such as reference managers, note taking modules, programming libraries, etc.), and programing and web-platforms (the Java Environment, Facebook, Instagram, etc.). What I wish to emphasize here is not that these tools are, in the end, also complex digital information packages faithfully transmitted and differentially popular. Nor that they can also be used as tools for transmitting or reproducing information (tools designed for these functions are also themselves transmitted digitally—video-conference apps, messaging apps, etc.). Of interest here is that these digital tools are designed to be used and are effectively used to generate novel digital (cultural) content. The digital age is not just an age of interconnectivity and information transmission. It is also, irreducibly, an age of compulsive information generation.
The decoupling of preservation and transformation
A popular view among cultural evolutionists is that humans are biologically endowed with high-fidelity transmission mechanisms, the soi-disant key to the stabilization and longevity of cultural traditions (Charbonneau, 2019). In this genetic inheritance inspired model, the generation of novel variation is often understood as a lack of fidelity: either the tradition is transmitted as is, or it is altered (e.g., by information loss or by risky mutations). Accordingly, the production of novel cultural variation—a transformative force—is understood as antagonistic to the fidelity of cultural transmission—a preservative force. Any process that would reduce the fidelity of transmission—such as copying-errors, recombination, invention, and other forms of modification—would act against cultural fidelity by transforming the information under transmission.
In chapter 7, Transmitting and Sharing, Alberto convincingly makes the point that digital technologies serve as fidelity amplifiers, cultural items that increase the likelihood of faithful transmission, producing other cultural items that are similar to one another. As the role of human intervention and cognition participates less and less in ensuring the faithful transmission of (digital) information, “copying errors are reduced in digital transmission, when comparing it to written, analogic, transmission.” (Acerbi, 2020, p. 169) In fact, digital technologies have amplified the faithfulness of information transmission to the point where massive digital tools (see above)—the informational size of which is beyond what any individual could transmit on their own during their lifetime—is now possible without a single bit-sized copying error. And this is opportune, as a single typo or miscopied bit of information could lead to the complete collapse of any miscopied digital tool.
In the digital age, miscopying is not as much a threat to the fidelity of transmission as it was before. We need not worry about copying errors and the degeneration of useful information through the eroding effect of repeated transmission (the wear and tear model (Morin, 2016) does not seem to apply to the digital age). Except for the rare, and generally trivial (if not mildly amusing) copying error introduced by human intervention (Seoul, the capital of South Korea, has an elevation of 38m, and not a population of 38M), copying errors are no longer a threat to the preservation and the stability of (digital) cultural information. In the infosphere, high-fidelity has won the race against information degeneration; there won’t be no digital Tasmanians, at least, not any time soon.
Paradoxically, because digital transmission is so faithful nowadays, transmission fidelity is no longer an explanatorily interesting feature when explaining why some lineages form in the first place, of why (online) information lives or dies, nor even how cumulation could proceed in the digital age (chapter 8). Virtual replication is now so faithful that any spin-off (transformation) of a digitized cultural trait does not threaten the stability and longevity of the original trait it is a modified version of (e.g., through noise or loss of information). Because all digital transmission is always of the uppermost fidelity, the distinction between transmission and fidelity becomes meaningless: all digital transmission is of high-fidelity (glitches are not errors in transmission but in use, and they too can be faithfully transmitted, as in Glitch art). In contrast to cultural transmission before the digital age, low fidelity digital transmission does not mean generating more variation, it simply means a complete breakdown in transmission. Digital fidelity and digital transmission are the very same thing: who has ever unfaithfully downloaded a functioning software?
Since in the digital world the preservation of information is no longer an issue, preservation and transformation, once opposing forces, are now decoupled. The sequence of the Downfall is not lost when you make up your own subtitles (nor are the “original” subtitles, whatever that means). The latest release of a Linux package remains the very same even if your write some new module for it. In the digital world, the original information, however much transformed, will be preserved anyways, however much you want to change it. In the digital age, transformations of some information no longer compete with the “parent” information for their relative representation in the next “generation.” In the digital world, nothing really dies. In other words, reading Alberto’s argument with generation rather than transmission in mind, preservation and transformation are no longer rival goods (Acerbi, 2020, p. 169).
Again in chapter 7, Alberto argues that before the digital age, the means for the broadcasting of information was limited to a few, but that nowadays those means are readily available to pretty much everyone. “Copying machines and the printing press make the copying process straightforward, but the technology necessary to implement them never developed in such a way as to be accessible to single individuals.” (Acerbi, 2020, p.169). Now that such (digital) machinery is readily available to all, the high-fidelity transmission and large broadcasting that was once the luxury of the well-off or of organized collectives have now become a widespread commodity accessible to the common individual. Widespread diffusion has been “democratized”.
The very same logic supports the idea that the means for generating cultural content have also seen a dramatic growth in the digital age. By increasing the availability of content-generating tools (accessibility) and by enhancing the ease of interfacing these tools with one another (interoperability), the production of a wide range of novel content is not only facilitated, but also augmented: these tools allows the generation of content that could not have been produced before. Because of the reduction in the cost and increase ease of access (thumb photography vs. chemical studio photography), and the in-built incentive structures to use them, powerful content generating tools are now pervasive. The digital age is not only supported by fidelity amplifiers, but also by ‘generative amplifiers’: tools increasing the ease for individuals to be content creators, together with the rate and diversity of the novel information they can generate. (In fact, being a ‘content creator’ is now a real job title, another surprise from our time traveler.) These generative amplifiers allow many, many more individuals to produce novel information, more than there ever was, and as a result much more variant information is produced. In other words, there are many more inventors per capita nowadays, inventors that are much more productive, than there was before the digital age.
It’s Reality TV, not the Truman Show
Perhaps this claim is wrong. Perhaps the proportion of individuals that participate in the generation of information is not larger than it was before, and perhaps we do not generate more information than our pre-digital ancestors.
One way of arguing against this conclusion would be to point out that, in our normal day to day lives and social interactions, we always produced the same amount of information, but that the digital tools mentioned above only allows the systematic recording of this information, making it more permanent, and thus increasing the probability of their exposition to others. Alberto writes “Beside very rare occasions, people do not wake up in the morning, write down their thoughts and then duplicate them with a copy machine and distribute them among their friends and colleagues.” (168) With digital tools, things are different, or in fact are exactly like this. My private cognitive causal chains? I can now record them by writing a personal diary of my thoughts and publish them on my blog. The social cognitive causal chains that I would have produced anyways by communicating with others? They now can be filmed and shared on Youtube. What changes with these content creation tools is not that they produce more or novel forms of information, but instead that they increase our capacity in recording the information ordinarily produced, information pre-digitally too fleeting to influence much others but which can now be systematically recorded. The profusion of information we exude is not new, it is the capacity to fossilize it that is new. Let’s call this position the Truman Show hypothesis.
I think there is a lot of truth in this hypothesis, but also that it is not the whole picture. I want to argue for what we can call the Reality TV hypothesis: the appearance of the recording of normal behavior, but in fact the recording of behavior produced willfully under the knowledge one is being observed, behavior that would not have been produced otherwise. The availability of creation tools does not only increase the recording of information that would have nevertheless been produced, the presence of these tools actually influence what content is generated when using them. In a nutshell, the Reality TV hypothesis claims that the opportunities for creating and recording content are much greater now with the use of digitally transmitted tools for content creation, but also that the very content that is being produced would not have been be produced were the tools for recording and diffusing it absent.
Take the phenomenon of “Camera eats first”, the habit of taking a picture of one’s meal before eating it and sharing the picture on the web. (Anecdotally, in Canada we don’t do those. For obvious climactic reasons, no time should be wasted if one is to enjoy a warm meal). Would anyone do such a thing unless they were provided with photographic tools and ease of sharing pictures? Say last night I went to Alberto’s for a dinner party and enjoyed this lasagna recipe he has been titillating my imagination with over the 220 pages of his book. While I may brag to my friends that I finally got to taste his OUP sanctioned lasagna recipe and describe the recipe he graciously shared with me that evening, I wouldn’t normally describe how the scarlet color palette of his Ragù sauce faded nicely in a gradient-strong composition, only sharply contrasting with the dark-blue table cloths he disposed on his oak wooden table (and how I adjusted the symmetry of the tableware and oh so slightly exaggerated the colour contrast for my description to be more enticing). However, with an Instagram ready smartphone, we now can. And do so. The reason why such information is now produced in the first place (and eventually shared) is because we now have (digital) tools to produce these representations (and, again, share them). The information is there in the world, for sure, but it would not be part of a transmission chain unless we had the tools to make it cultural. Producing such information is new phenomenon, I surmise, and it is new because it can now be produced easily, cheaply, and instantly. Homework: are Natures mortes pre-digital “Paintbrush-and-canvas eats first” analogs? (pun intended) And if this example is not convincing to you, think of the Ice bucket challenge — the “activity involving the dumping of a bucket of ice water over a person’s head” (Again, in Canada we don’t do those; we just call it April). How, and most importantly: why! would such behaviors be produced in the first place without the digital platform AND creation tools motivating their generation in the first place?
Acerbi, Alberto (2020). Cultural Evolution in the Digital Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Charbonneau, Mathieu (2015). All Innovations Are Equal, but Some More than Others: (Re)Integrating Modification Processes to the Origins of Cumulative Culture. Biological Theory 10 (4): 322–35.
Charbonneau, Mathieu (2016). Modularity and Recombination in Technological Evolution. Philosophy & Technology 29: 373–92.
Charbonneau, Mathieu (2018). Technical Constraints on the Convergent Evolution of Technologies. In Convergent Evolution in Stone-Tool Technology, edited by Michael J. O’Brien, Briggs Buchanan, and Metin I. Eren, 73–89. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Charbonneau, Mathieu (2019). Understanding Cultural Fidelity. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science.
Morin, Olivier. 2016. How Traditions Live and Die. Oxford: Oxford University Press.