Posts filed under ‘memes’

Cultural Evolution: Energy and Information

I looked in to Robert Wright’s Non-Zero:  The Logic of Human Destiny, which has an appendix explaining “What is Social Complexity?” as a phenomenon of cultural evolution “calibrated in terms of energy” (344).   Then I flipped to chapter 17, “The Cosmic Context,” which takes up the question of life and claims that evolution “isn’t just a catchy metaphor for cultural change; at some basic level, cultural evolution and biological evolution have the same machinery” (243).  He shows how societies are similar to organisms in their conversion of energy into more and more complex structures, and he then relates energy and information, asserting that “though both information and energy are fundamental, information is in charge.  In human societies, energy (and matter, for that matter) is guided by information–not the other way around” (247).

He finds a “further analogy between organisms and societies” in considering this relationship between energy and information:

It isn’t just that in both cases energy is marshaled in a way that sustains and protects structure.  And it isn’t just that this marshaling is always guided by information.  It is that *it is the function of the information to guide the marshaling.* (249)

He concludes that

In societies, in organisms, in cells, the magic glue is information. Information is what synchronizes the parts of the whole and keeps them in touch with each other as they collectively resist disruption  and decay. Information is what allows life to defy the spirit, though not the letter, of the second law of thermodynamics. Information marshals the energy needed to build and replenish the structures that the entropic currents of time tirelessy erode. And this information isn’t some mysterious ‘force,’ but, rather, physical stuff: the patterned sound waves that my vocal chords send to your ear, the firing of neurons in a brain, the hormones that regulate blood sugar, the cyclic AMP molecule in a bacterium. Information is a structured form of matter or energy whose generic function is to sustainand protect structure. It is what directs matter and energy to where they are needed, and in so doing brushes entropy aside, so that order can grow locally even as it declines universally–so that life can exist. (250)

This makes me think of a previous blog entry which mentions a book called The Bit and the Pendulum:  From Quantum Computing to M Theory–The New Physics of Information, which posits that information is a physical thing just as real as energy and matter, as well as Stuart Kauffman’s Reinventing the Sacred, which also speaking of linking matter, energy, and information.  Kauffman sees “agency, value and meaning” (the title of chapter 6) at all levels of life, from single-celled creatures to human beings, and these agents, at whatever level, are what require and act upon information:  “information requires an *agent, a non-equilibrium self-reproducing system doing work cycles,* to *receive* the information, *discriminate* it, and *interpret and act* on it” (96).

Both Wright and Kauffman start with Schrodinger’s What is Life?, and both speak of purposeful behavior as fundamental to life:  for Wright, it is the “logic of human destiny” that he speaks of in his sub-title.

For the study of energonomics, this notion of information therefore asks us to consider how memes (ideas, concepts, information) steer cultural evolution, thereby channeling energy into more and more complex structures.


26 August 2009 at 10:47 pm Leave a comment

on Collective Intelligence

See this “Quote of the Day: New Knowledge” from Will Richardson’s blog for an interesting reference to a 600 pg. report on “Collective Intelligence.” This meme is getting legs.

24 April 2008 at 10:46 am Leave a comment

Collective Intelligence Emergent

I have mentioned the idea of “Collective Intelligence” in two previous posts (“Memory in the Age of Electracy” and “The Civilization of Illiteracy“) and will now add it as a tag/category.  It seems to be a meme that is catching on, as I just encountered it again in the “Horizon Project 2008” wikispace, wherein classrooms are connecting to enact some of the concepts in the book Wikinomics and The World is Flat (the Horizon Project being a sister project to the “Flat Classroom Project“).  The Horizon 2008 Report offers a timeline and suggests that in 4-5 years collective intelligence and “social operating systems” will be adopted.  Pretty radical!

17 April 2008 at 3:24 pm Leave a comment

The Energonomics of Memes

I have picked up Why Choose This Book? again (which I first mentioned in “Energonomics of the Brain“). Chapter 4, titled “Sharks Don’t Go On Hunger Strikes,” speaks of the power of memes, of abstract ideas, to circumvent our instincts for survival. He starts with the Heaven’s Gate cult tragedy as a way to introduce the chapter:

The amazing part of the Heaven’s Gate story is that the cult members used an abstract idea–going to the “next level”–to veto their powerful instincts to survive. This act defines a behavioral superpower–the capacity to veto survival instincts to the point of death. . . . A mere idea hijacked the controls of these people’s brains and drove their bodies off a cliff (88-89).

Montague then explains how abstract goals become substituted for fundamental instincts like eating and procreating:

Ideas gain the power of rewards and become instantly meaningful to the rest of the brain. . . . Now, this kind of trick provides for an extremely creative learning machine. It can choose to ignore its instincts momentarily and pursue a thought to the exclusion of everything else. It is easy to see how such a power could be useful for generating cognitive innovations. An idea with the beckoning power of ice cream can control a succession of thoughts for some time. The effect is just like foraging for food hidden under rocks and behind bushes in a field. . . . Cool trick. Redeploy foraging in the pursuit of cognitive innovation. Foraging fields for food becomes foraging a mental storehouse for new ideas. (111)

Now anyone associated with academia will recognize this process: how one can go for hours without eating and without thinking about it as one pursues an idea to its limits. Here, ideas become equivalent to the goals of basic instincts: finding food, or having sex.

Memes, then, become a way of channeling brain energy toward particular goals which may or may not be in the best interests of one’s survival, as in the case of the Heaven’s Gate cult members. Montague’s work goes a long way toward understanding the process of how such a system can evolve, as well as what makes us as humans so different from other animals.

29 March 2008 at 1:18 pm Leave a comment

The Energonomics of Leadership

I read an op-ed piece in the Boston Globe today titled “The Power of Charisma” which introduces the work of Joseph Nye, who invented the concept of “soft power” and has a new book out called The Powers to Lead  This is an area that I wish to investigate further.  It is a question of where the manifestations of physical energy (that trajectory from our sun to plants to calories to human brain) go after entering the brain.  I have suggested in previous posts that concepts or memes are transmitted via language, which acts as a form of energy storage (in the case of written language) or serves as a kind of catalyst (in the case of spoken language) to concentrate the brain-energy in the mind-brain of another on a certain subject or meme.  I have wondered about the sociology of mass movements, whether for the good (MLK) or for evil (Hitler) and how it is that leaders are able to focus the energies of many to make things happen in the world.

And so I wonder:  what is the psychology of charisma?  How does one become charismatic (assuming they have the “good looks” required of the charismatic)?  Perhaps Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” could point the way to answering this.

I bet there was an evolutionary advantage to certain people being leaders and most others being followers.  Obviously, the well-organized band of pre-humans was able to get more work done more effectively; they were able to manage the collective energy of the group so as to maximize its potential.

11 March 2008 at 8:02 pm Leave a comment

Energy Studies

I bought a few books at the MIT Press Bookstore yesterday by Vaclav Smil, a professor at the University of Manitoba who does interdisciplinary studies of energy and the environment.  The first one, Energies:  An Illustrated Guide to the Biosphere and Civilization, is very much like the book I wanted to write about “Energonomics” insofar as it attempts to bridge the gaps in the sciences of modern energy studies:

Its basic idea is to offer a comprehensive and integrated survey of the energies shaping our world, from the Sun to pregnancy, from bread to microchips.  Naturally, such a sweep demands both a logical progression and selectivity.

So he begins with planetary energy flows, moves to plant and animal life, which leads to “human energetics” and then to energy usage throughout the history of society and culture.  While Smil focuses primarily on science, I am interested in bridging the science of energy flows with the social sciences and humanities.  For example, what is the energy value of a particular idea?  How do ideas (or “memes”) attract the energy of individuals such that they debate, fight, even die for them?  What is the science and sociology of such transmission?  So there might be a place for energonomics within this field.

19 January 2008 at 2:24 pm 1 comment

The Energonomics of Sensation

Last night I watched the movie Love is the Devil, about (20th century artist) Francis Bacon’s relationship with George Dyer.  The movie was incredibly powerful and impressed me (literally–pressed upon me, like I was a lump of metal being pressed into a coin) with its images.  The movie used images of blood and meat, pervasive in the paintings of Bacon, in combination with  eery music and strange camera effects, to express the pain of Dyer’s obsessive love for Bacon.

So I pulled out my Deleuze books this morning, for Deleuze devoted a whole book to Francis Bacon in developing his concept of the “logic of sensation.”   I settled on Jennifer Daryl Slack’s essay “The Logic of Sensation” in Gilles Deleuze:  Key Concepts (edited by Charles Stivale).  According to Slack, Sensation is “that which exceeds intellectual control and works directly on and through the nervous system” (135).  It is “force made visible, audible, and/or palpable, and is thus embodied.  For Bacon the challenge is to paint the sensation that makes invisible forces visible:  to paint pressure, contraction, elongation, a scream and so on” (135).  To experience Sensation in this sense, we must “‘enter’ the event, live the sensation in the body, become the sensation” (136).  Later, she speaks of entering the event of watching The Matrix and uses this as an example to try to show how the logic of sensation works rather than explaining it, rather than imposing a story upon it.  Here is what she writes about it:

I invite you to encounter The Matrix from within the space of these sensations: within what adolescence feels like. The film is not about adolescence, but for reasons I could only begin to guess at, the film transmits sensations of adolescence directly onto the nervous system.  They are enfleshed sensations that render visible the otherwise invisible forces that work in adolescence. . . (137-38)

This made me think of my concept of energonomics, the part of it that tries to explain the materiality of memetic transfer.  That is, the material process of how an idea can be conveyed (literally) from one person’s mindbrain to another’s.  While Deleuze is not here directly speaking of ideas or concepts but of sensations (what he would call “percepts” in What is Philosophy?), the mechanism of transfer is the same. The brain is part of the nervous system, so that is not too far from this transmission of sensations “directly onto the nervous system.”  It occurs to me that thought can be considered a sensation from this point of view–pure sensation, but of another sort than mere touching, tasting, feeling, hearing, or seeing.  Perhaps a condensation of sensual sensation, or a twining, or the memory of sensation, its storage for future recall–a result of evolutionary survivalism, but since we’ve created societies where survival is relatively assured, our memory is freed up.  Forgive me as I allow this thread of thought to ramble forth:

So how do we remember the things we remember?   I am thinking of two or three memorable moments that I would describe as “sensations.”  One was experiencing the finale to the Blue Man Group, with loud dance music, strobe lights, and flowing white toilet paper billowing throughout the theatre.  This is nothing that can be explained to somebody; it has to be directly experienced.  Another similar moment was the ordination of Karen Tse as a Unitarian Universalist minister, during which she had a Chinese Dragon dance accompanied by loud and persistent drumming.  Both involved heavy drum beats and intense spectacles.

I’ll have to think more about all of this, but I wanted to capture the connection between the logic of sensation as presented by Slack and the concept of energonomics as understood by Robert Aunger’s sense of the “electric meme.”

12 January 2008 at 12:19 pm Leave a comment

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