What makes a good culture?

by toonalfrink2 min read5th Feb 20197 comments


Social & Cultural DynamicsWorld Optimization

I've been thinking about the question: what is culture? And what makes a good culture?

Some definitions of culture:

- the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society.

- the social behavior and norms found in human societies.

- the range of phenomena that are transmitted through social learning in human societies.

These all point at something, but they're too vague for my CS mind. There must be a clearer definition at the heart of all this, but what is it?

I have some original thoughts on it, but don't take this as a full answer.

- Culture is a set of behavioral roles that are available to members of a group of people. I picture it as a set of interwoven lines, or tunnels of various sizes and shapes, or a machine with various parts.

- This set of roles has to be stable: if you throw a bunch of humans at it that follow their incentive, it has to stay relatively intact. A culture that people are quick to renegotiate, isn't interesting.

- Stability is distinct from but related to quality, which is the extent to which humans can get their needs met given the palette of roles they can choose from. *The best culture is one in which everyone has a role to play which gives them everything they want*, the worst (stable) culture is a Molochian hellscape.

- Culture has the shape of a fractal. On the lowest level everyone interacts with everyone given some very basic rules, but there are tribal lines that divide the machine up into subregions that are more integrated than the whole, possibly incompatible with each other, and these subdivisions go all the way down from tribes to subcultures to communities to small groups to relationships to individuals (to subagents to subroutines to neurons...)

Many questions. What makes a good culture? Why/how do these subdivisions exist? How can this be programmed? Wouldn't it be hubristic to try? How do you make Pareto improvements?

Let's plug in some Jung. He said that we all share a "collective unconscious" which consists of "archetypes" that are "relatively independent patterns of behavior that we all share". This sounds a lot like subagents to me, and it adds a lot of information value: that we all share some subagents with roughly the same characteristics, namely X, Y and Z.

Another piece of information: the idea that subagents cannot be entirely deleted, only repressed. While sure as hell we do try to delete some subagents (like those that get angry), that doesn't actually happen: instead the subagent turns into our "shadow", which is a part of our psychology that we're unaware of and that is getting it's way subversively.

So what makes a good culture? Well perhaps to start with, it should allow everyone to express their subagents (including the dangerous ones), and of course it should allow this without the release of this energy being detrimental to the needs of others.

While Jung doesn't go further than psychology, can we try to extend this to the whole of the cultural fractal? Not only should our subagents be allowed freedom of (safe) expression, so should people, partners, groups, communities, subcultures and tribes (and subroutines and neurons, whatever that means).

I think sports, gaming, drinking, dancing etc are all examples of this kind of relatively harmless expression of dangerous subagents. I guess it's called "letting off steam".

Of course, we can't just open the floodgates of decency and watch the world burn in anarchism. All of these fences are there for a reason, and kicking them all down will lead to a lot of problems.

But what we should do, perhaps, is think very hard about where to place our fences so that any kind of need, opinion or lifestyle can be expressed without either becoming subversive because of too much repression or harmful because of too little channeling.

This post was written with the support of the EA Hotel.


7 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 4:20 AM
New Comment

I haven't read either of these books I am about to mention, but you might find cultural evolution to be an interesting subject. This is largely because evolution is pretty well specified and so while culture isn't, linking the two provides more clarity for the latter. There are reviews of The Secrets of Our Success by Joseph Heinrich, and Darwin's Unfinished Symphony by Kevin Laland over at Overcoming Bias.

They're on my list, but the worst thing about reading lists is that they grow.

Your posts starts by noting that you aren't clear what's meant with culture and then you go on to discuss what would be a good culture without having brought forward a good definition.

The word culture gets used when talking about company cultures and it also gets used when talking about the culture of nations or communities.

Those different kinds of cultures have different goals and different things make them good.

Seems to me that an important aspect of culture is how it organizes "zero-sum" games between its members. I am using scare quotes because a game which is zero-sum (or negative-sum) for its two active players can still generate positive or negative externalities for the rest of the tribe. And because some resources are scarce, and there will be a competition for them, it is nice when the energy of the competition can be channeled into some benefit for the rest of the tribe.

For example, in the hacker culture, one gains status by contributing quality code, so whoever wins more imaginary "most awesome coder" point, billions of people will get free software. Or there are cultures where the traditional way to signal wealth is to donate stuff to other members. An opposite would be a culture where people signal wealth e.g. by wearing expensive watches. (Although it could be argued that this creates some positive externalities too, e.g. job opportunities for the watchmakers.)

I am not sure about this, but I have a feeling that if you want to design a culture that is a nice place to live in, you should encourage pro-social activities as the recommended way to do costly signaling.

Sports are probably also an example of this, when people translate their desire to win (as individuals or teams) into entertainment for others. As opposed to e.g. street fighting which would put lives and property of others in risk. (But people are already aware that sports are "violence made harmless"; my suggestion is to focus on competition in abstract, not only physical violence as its one specific form.)

To see culture from a more CS perspective look up papers on “cultural evolution” and cooperation. The books / blog by evolutionary biologist / historian Peter Turchin “War and Peace and War” and “Super Cooperators”. Behavioral research on altruism and costly punishment in repeated prisoners dilemma games also shows the importance and impact of culture.

In this interpretation a “good” culture is one that has more solidarity & honor than back-stabbing & free riding. From a purely economic perspective it creates greater overall welfare and trust.

From an evolutionary perspective “more fit” cultures replace less fit ones, especially via invasion or general external pressure. When there is a lack of sustained external threat to incentivize collective action, cultures often devolve into decadence, back-stabbing and mistrust like Mafioso Sicily.

High social cohesion isn’t necessarily morally “good” though. Catholic Spain was super cohesive when kicking out the Moors. It propelled them into a golden age, but it also turned them into genocidal intolerant maniacs.

A good example of a strongly cohesive culture today is South Korea. They are always under threat of invasion from many sides, so they built a culture of super strong cohesion, hard work, etc.

And to go back to your point about cohesion not necessarily being an unqualified good, South Korean culture (especially its emphasis on one-shot high-stakes exams as a way of determining future life prospects) results in one of the highest suicide rates in the world.

Nobel Laureate in Econ Elinor Ostrom describes how in the real world we have a variety of formal And informal governance structures (that do negotiated decision making, monitoring, conflict resolution, punishments, etc.) to allow both local and global optima. From an info-processing view you know locally what’s best for you, but you need a way of aligning local decisions to reach global optima. Because this is very complex and fuzzy we humans have nested overlapping norms and institutions to govern behavior while allowing freedom and flexibility.

Jung seemed to be the first to identify more explicitly the punctuated equilibrium model of adult psychological development. I find it useful to combine with sub agents to explain a lot of the psychotehrapuetic models I see. Different parts can be at different stages of development and thus be open to different kinds of evidence and experiences in order to mature and gain access to better strategies for getting needs met.