Cultural Evolution in the Digital Age

In our latest interview, Cultured Scene discusses the new book Cultural Evolution in the Digital Age with its author, Alberto Acerbi.

Cultured Scene: For our Cultured Scene readers who may not have picked up a copy of Cultural Evolution in the Digital Age yet, could you give a brief overview of what the book covers?

Alberto Acerbi: Cultural Evolution in the Digital Age is an attempt to apply various ideas and methods from cultural evolution to understand what is happening with the diffusion of digital online media.  The book covers various related topics: how online media increase the network where cultural transmission occurs; how we can assess realistically the effects of online social influence, echo chambers, and the spread of misinformation; how digital and online media change – and do not change – cultural transmission; or how they may impact on cumulative cultural evolution.

At the same time, even if this has never been the main goal of the book, there are quite a few bits that can be of more general interest for cultural evolution, among others: what social learning strategies represent; how important is social learning in humans; the influence of cognitive factors on the spread of cultural traits; or how important are reconstructive and preservative aspects of cultural transmission.

CS: For me as a reader, the book debunked some popular ‘myths’ about the dangers of the internet – that we are all blindly copying whatever Kim Kardashian does on Instagram, or that ‘fake news’ has irreparably damaged our grasp on reality. Did you begin writing it knowing that these myths (when they’re assumed to be special to the internet, at least) were largely incorrect, or did you discover things while writing that were surprising to you? 

AA: The latter! My starting point was that, from a cultural evolutionary perspective, our cognitive systems should be specialized for processing social interactions, communications, learning from others, so we should be sceptical of accounts in which humans are too gullible. But, of course, it could have been that the disruption caused by digital media was changing all this.

Thus, when I began thinking about the book and collecting the material, I was pretty much neutral about the matter. In fact, this was more than four years ago, before the Brexit referendum, before Trump’s election, before the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Only after that, lots of newspapers, but also scientists, jumped on the bandwagon of the “post-truth era”, “social media are a danger for democracy”, and similar. This seemed to me a misleading interpretation of what most research was showing. The book ended up being, also, a long refutation of these ideas, offering hopefully a more nuanced view.

CS: Do you have any insight into why these myths about the dangers of the internet are so entrenched?

AA: I thought a bit about that. First, a couple of speculations. One reason may be at the personal level. All of us experience the negative sides of social media, the hours wasted clicking one link after the other (instead of having a nice walk!), the discussions quickly degenerating, the tweet that you thought fun being interpreted differently, or mentioned in another context, and the backslash starting. I guess we tend to remember more these aspects than the positive interactions, the information we discover, the collaborations starting online which are still, I believe, the majority of cases, and are often taken for granted.

Another reason, which I think is more worrying, is that they provide a way to blame something easy to identify for problems that are often complex. Brexit? It is social media’s fault! This is easier than understanding (and especially, solving) the complex social, economic, and cultural causes that are behind it. I’d be very happy if by regulating Twitter and Facebook we could solve many of the problems around us, but I am not very optimistic about that.

Finally, and this is less speculative, each time a new technology is introduced there is a reaction against it, the stronger the bigger the effects of the technology. This makes sense: we have symbiotic relationships with all technologies, we adapt them, we need to adapt to them, we change them, and they change, up to a point, us. This process needs time. In the book, I use the example of the printing press. The diffusion of printed books generated panic in many intellectuals: how could they cope with all this information? How could they find the good books and discard the bad ones? Other inventions followed: indexes, thematic catalogues, and margins for note-taking are all answers to that genuine early information overload.   

Grumpy Cat attends VidCon 2014 at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, California – can cultural evolution approaches explain her popularity?
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

CS: There’s a great sentence in the introduction to the book about being able to apply cultural evolution to digital media –

For cultural evolution to be a mature science of human behavior, it needs to be possible to apply it both to hunter-gatherer populations and to contemporary teenagers. It should be able to say something about the thousand-year-long processes of linguistic change, as well as about the spread of Grumpy Cat.

In the conclusion of the book you point out that internet use is not universal – you cite a UN estimation that only 20% of people in African countries had had access to the internet during 2016, for example. With that in mind, is any study of cultural evolution online inherently WEIRD? Can we assume any findings from this domain can be generalized to other contexts – can Grumpy Cat tell us something about human behaviour more generally?

AA: Yes, it is definitely WEIRD. Even more, social media have very specific demographic features: on Twitter people are younger and more educated than their respective countries’ averages; an analysis of Facebook ten years ago could have been generalized as applying to young WEIRDs, while today it probably would be middle-aged WEIRDs. It is important to be aware of this. A study of social influence on Twitter is a study of social influence on Twitter, not a study of social influence online, or a study of social influence.

That said, as long as we interpret them correctly, the results can be informative and, as with experiments, one can try to use more representative samples. Generalization is a complicated beast. The reaction to the WEIRD problem is surely welcome in psychology. I have a “classic” anthropological formation, and in anthropology the problem was recognized a century ago, with developments of various merit. In general, I would say that we need theoretical justifications both for expecting transcultural differences in a behaviour and for not expecting them.     

But, going back to Cultural Evolution in the Digital Age, what I do there is mostly proceeding the other way around: I am less interested in what Grumpy Cat tells us about human behaviour than in what we know about human behaviour tells us about Grumpy Cat.

I think there is a huge and promising empty space for early-career researchers in this area.

CS: If any early-career researchers reading this feel inspired to start researching internet phenomena using a cultural evolution framework, are there any key avenues of research you think are going to be particularly fruitful in the future?

AA: Quite surprisingly there are very few works using a cultural evolutionary framework to study internet phenomena, which was one of the main motivations to write this book. As I said in the book, cultural evolution seems to be optimally suited for this endeavour, having both a robust quantitative/computational methodology and a strong theoretical background on human behaviour. I think there is a huge and promising empty space for early-career researchers in this area. 

Being an empty space, the exciting, albeit risky, thing is that one has the freedom to figure out what are the possible avenues of research. A few that come to mind (some of which I am working on myself): How do the learning strategies studied in cultural evolution influence online dynamics and, vice versa, how do digital online media impact on learning strategies? How do cognitive factors of attraction, or content biases, contribute to the success of online content? How does the spread of information online interact with the broader cultural ecology we are part of? Can we detect cumulative culture online, and are there factors specific to online digital media that boost, or hinder, online cumulation? Can we understand from a cultural evolutionary perspective the motivations of the producers of cultural traits, and how they can contribute the explain online dynamics?     

CS: How did the initial idea for the book come about? Why write this up as a book rather than a review paper or papers?

AA: I always enjoyed reading non-fiction books and I have always been interested in writing without the rigid constraints of the standard scientific paper form (I have been blogging about cultural evolution for almost eight years), so the idea of a book has always been floating in my mind. Then I happened to start a long postdoc where I was relatively free to decide what to do. On the other side, I was not part of a proper lab and I was working mostly remotely. I decided this could be a good occasion.

The content came into focus after the decision to write a book. I wanted to apply cultural evolution to something relevant outside the field and, up to a point, outside academia, and the “digital age” topic arrived quite naturally after some research.   

CS: For early career researchers who may be reading this and wondering whether they could write a book at some point in their career, what would you say are the benefits and challenges of writing a book compared with other forms of academic publishing that we might have more experience with?

AA: I really think that one has to have a strong personal motivation to write a book, otherwise there is no reason to. The benefits are far from obvious. A book does not help too much for getting a job in a scientific department (to be honest, I got a lectureship shortly after I could put the book “in press” in my CV and show off about it in my job talk, but I do not think that this was the reason), it does not give you any noticeable income (at least in my case), and the increase in scientific reputation seems to be quite limited. On the contrary, the challenges are many. One needs to be focused for years on a single project, with limited feedback and with a single, very far-off and difficult to visualize, goal. In the last year, I had to implement a writing schedule with an established amount of words per day and stick to it, even when I would have preferred to do whatever else. 

But I do not want to be discouraging. Again, given the right motivation and the practical possibility, it can be a rewarding experience. In my case, it was certainly useful to frame various topics I am interested in as well as to clarify, perhaps to myself, some more theoretical issues I was thinking about for years. Also, more concretely, given that the book, more than presenting past research, discusses possible research avenues, I plan to use the material to apply for future grants.  

CS: Is there anything you initially wanted to include in the book but that never reached the final version?

AA: Yes, the first manuscript started with two general chapters about cultural evolution before moving on to the “digital age” aspects. I realized that it did not work, as I was continuously referring to examples in the following chapters, so I cut them (I reused some of the material, luckily). 

However, there is nothing that I would have liked to include at the beginning and I regret to have not. Mostly, there are many things that now I would like to have included in the book but are not there. I guess this is good though: there is more work to do in the next years!

Alberto Acerbi is a Lecturer in Psychology at the Centre for Culture and Evolution at Brunel University London. He is a cognitive/evolutionary anthropologist with a particular interest in computational science.

Cultural Evolution in the Digital Age is published by Oxford University Press and can be purchased here

The ‘Cultural Evolution in the Digital Age’ Book Club discussed the book last month, and resulting commentaries by Alex Mesoudi, Hugo Mercier, Mathieu Charbonneau, Olivier Morin, Pascal Boyer, Sacha Altay, and Tiffany Morisseau can be found here: