Saturday, July 11, 2015

cultural ruts in theory and in practice

It is clear to many people that our culture has gotten itself into a rut, yet it is hard for most to imagine ways of getting out of this rut. They think of doing one or a few things that make no difference at all (except to their conscience) or actually make things worse. My claim is that this is just the nature of genetic or memetic ruts: all directions lead uphill, at least initially. That is what a species or a culture is: a peak in fitness space, or a valley/rut in negative fitness space. It is separated from another species or culture by a mountainpass, which is the best place to get to the other valley—all other paths require more energy, more suffering and less fitness. The direction which leads to the mountain pass is a change in a combination of tens or hundreds of memes or genes. But the properties of complex networks require that only one of these memes or genes (the so called master or regulatory meme or gene) needs to be changed initially, the other ones follow in a hierarchical fashion. In biological speciation, to ensure stable transmission of the change in the master gene, it needs to be mutated. An epigenetic change would be unstable. But with cultures and memes all changes are epigenetic.

Cultures are more akin to breeds/varieties as the mountain passes connecting them are not as high as they are between species. I propose that species are more akin to civilizations with different paradigms, as both of these have such high mountain passes (between them and the mother species/civilization) that information flow is virtually negligible and they are much more stable than breeds/varieties/cultures. The stability comes from the nature of the fitness (or its heuristic counterpart known as happiness) function: all directions away from the current peak lead downhill (or in uphill if you look at negative fitness instead). Memes, unlike genes, can't be hardwired, but the fact that attempted changes usually cause pain has a similar effect to hardwiring—stability (proportional the the depth of the rut). On the other hand, we are capable of changing them at will, and if we pick the right ones (the master memes), we can get out of a cultural rut with minimal pain.

One problem is that the memetic landscape and its associated fitness function are distributed among all the individuals of the mother and nascent cultures. One individual is not usually sufficient for changing the expression of the master meme--it takes many people acting in concert. Gandhi advocated the seed approach where one individual inspires others and the expression of the master meme thus grows. This doesn't always work, it didn't work for Gandhi in establishing a village-based economy in India for example. Another approach for increasing the expression of the master meme is the Black Panther "use the tools of the prison to get out of prison", tools such as the internet, money and actual products of the industrial global economy.  But this is a topic for another time.

What I'd like to do now is make concrete the abstract way I've talked about memetic landscapes here and in the past. One important point is that what gets selected for in one negative fitness valley is not necessarily the same as in another valley. The highly networked genes that give rise to an organism and a species, and the highly networked memes that give rise to an individual and a culture make most changes to only a few genes or a few memes at a time highly disadvantageous, which is why most people either can't imagine changes that would make a difference (they need to look at many changes in a wholistic way, not just one or a few), or get frustrated when they attempt one or a few changes.

Let's look at a culture that values local production/consumption of goods more than global production/consumption and compare it to a culture where these values are reversed. Here local production is hypothesized to be a master meme, in that many memes are affected by it and that just changing from global to local production gets one from one negative fitness valley into another one. Though an initial explicit isolation from the mainstream culture helps the nascent culture avoid being out-competed (local production is only more advantageous in a local production environment), or swamped by drift of memes from the mainstream culture, there are costs to explicit isolation. Implicit isolation, brought about by the depth of the negative valley fitness (or the height of the mountain pass) has less costs but takes time to establish. How much initial explicit isolation is necessary is an empirical question: Cutting off or reduction in media input should be beneficial for memetic isolation, but it might also have costs, such as reduced ability to recruit people. Cutting off or reducing technological or financial inputs can also be beneficial for memetic isolation, but it can have costs such as less energy available for building the new culture. We need to do many experiments to find out the explicit initial isolation sweet spot. But at least we recognize the importance of isolation, in contrast with the liberal humanist meme of global village which has a knee jerk reaction against isolation.

Memes from different cultures still mix with each other if the fitness barriers are not too high.  Not only do memes from one civilization not mix with ones from the other (because of the high fitness cost of changing them one or a few at a time, with the exception of the master meme), but people from one civilization have no desire to mix either memes (intellectual/emotional intercourse) or genes (sexual intercourse) with the other culture. This is already happening even for varieties/breeds/cultures, which can be seen as small valleys separated by small mountain passes, within one larger scale valley. For example liberals and conservatives are such memetic breeds, separated from each other by a small, not too high, mountain pass. But they are both totally entrenched in the big valley of Empire which uses global industrial production as its main tool.

Here are the differences between the valley of global production and local production, which create memetic isolation between the people involved.

In the local culture, people take care of the nature around them. Not out of altruism or environmentalism, but out of self-preservation.

People do not have much time for psychotherapy and do not value it monetarily more than farming or any other task necessary for survival. People belong to a natural place, a family and a community, people have meaningful work that connects them to these, and this makes them mentally and emotionally healthier than people in the mother culture who lack these relationships. Therapy becomes as absurd as for a gorilla in their natural habitat, a villager in a pre-industrial setting, or a hunter-gatherer. Addictions become less prevalent as people's real needs for belonging, connection to nature and meaningful work are satisfied. Therapy is like an addiction in that it is trying to satisfy a deep need with the wrong means. It works very temporarily and creates a dependency that ultimately disempowers the patient, like alcohol, and other drugs.

People eat meat because they need the concentrated protein and are not able to grow as many soy beans as with industrial agriculture. Veganism works in middle class urban global culture, but is absurd in a local agrarian, craft based culture.

People do not have pets stay and especially sleep indoors because that could give them fleas, ticks and poison oak or ivy. In a global culture where cities are possible, pets can stay indoors all the time or go in the yard where such pests mentioned above have been exterminated

People do not need to go away very often because they value providing for their cultural needs locally. Also they mostly do not have fossil fuels to power vehicles and horses are more expensive to feed and maintain over long distances, especially if they are carrying loads beyond their rider.

People mostly engage in work that provides for their basic needs, not work that provides foo foo luxuries mostly for the rich. I see so much energy spent by people scrambling to get basic goods from the global economy by making fancy chocolate, offering yoga, massage, psychotherapy, financial services, expensive crafts. They could probably spend less energy by taking care of each other's basic needs, producing goods to meet those basic needs and providing basic services and have energy left over for some of the fancier things that they can't afford in the global economy.

In the local culture, people communicate with their families and neighbors face to face, not via Facebook or email. If they need to communicate with people further away, they use “snail” mail, or rather pigeon mail or horse mail. If they need to compute they use their brains, paper and pen. If they need to be social they dance together or sing or play music or listen to other people playing music. If they need intellectual fellowship they get together to discuss ideas. If they need artistic stimulation they get together to share stories, put on plays and teach each other various artistic skills.


  1. How is Green Valley Village working out?

  2. Hi Tom!
    Well, the community is trying to survive despite the fact that most of its economic base has been sold to people who want to do something else there. Many people have moved away. Some have invested large amounts of energy there in businesses and infrastructure that they can't recover. A few of us keep going, trying to survive economically. I keep working for the vegetable CSA, milking goats, helping people move, working in the vineyard, watering the oaks in the nursery, fixing vehicles, weaving screens, building a new kind of solar concentrator (workshops have been largely denuded of tools though), and trying to form an institute that would be based on sharing commons with Ostrom principles and helping a friend who move away get funding for two of his projects. A few of us are trying to form a union of craftspeople to sell our goods at craft fares.We are hosting guests, trading wine for firewood we cut, and wine for tempeh made locally. I was thinking of you just last night when someone was messing with a siphon for a well--maybe he should try the cheap pump you alerted me to. A bit of music, but no dancing lately. A few late night get togethers with friends. Sashi and I are going to New Orleans to help my parents in their old age. It might be for the whole winter...

  3. Blessings to you. I am glad you continue to experiment!