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Social institutions, technologies, and ideologies and conceptual frameworks are comprised of memes (cognitions) linked together into coherent bundles according to organizing principles called “paradigms.” For instance, a government or economy is comprised of the memes which define the roles of all actors in the system, the rules and processes involved, and the underlying principles which inform and guide it (the paradigm). This is true of informal as well as formal institutions, across levels of organization, including everything from religions and industries to popular beliefs and customs of all kinds.

Memes and paradigms are in constant flux, evolving by several interrelated mechanisms. At core, as in biological evolution, is the variable reproductive success of the underlying memes. Memes, like genes, are packets of information which reproduce (are communicated), mutate (change in the various minds of those to whom they are communicated), differentially thrive (sometimes in direct competition, and sometimes due merely to contextual circumstances), and thus evolve (those mutations that are more reproductively successful proliferate while those that are less so fade away). Memes and sets of memes can also be combined in novel ways through intentional human effort to innovate, producing new memes and sets of memes from the consciously mediated synthesis of existing ones.

The relative reproductive success of memes is driven by a combination of reflexive and reflective individual human responses. Motivating these responses are psychological and emotional predispositions, general utility, and localized utility, blended into both rote and strategic interactions. The localized utility of certain memes and sets of memes can coalesce into social institutional power (often originated by, and implicitly underwritten by, access to physical force), allowing the imposition of paradigms that yield differentiated costs and benefits to those organized under them.

The evolution of technological memes and sets of memes, for instance, is driven at one level by general utility (see The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology), from which individuals involved in their creation, production and utilization draw localized utility, and, when combined with facilitating organizational memes, can give differentiated power to those groups of people with differentiated access to them or ability to utilize them for maximum benefit. The evolution of popular beliefs, on the other hand, is driven more by identifiable and inherent psychological and emotional predispositions, in a process of adaptation to and articulation with memes and paradigms evolving under the lathe of utility (which in turn adapt to and articulate with memes and paradigms evolving under the lathe of psychological and emotional predispositions).

Social institutions (including social institutional purposive systems that program human behavioral phenomena, or social institutional “technologies,” but excluding other technologies that program natural phenomena) coalesce around organizational adaptations to technologies of all kinds, as well as in both haphazard (decentralized, organic, and cumulative) and intentional (centralized, purposive, and punctuated) response to collective action and (to a lesser extent) time horizon problems (see Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems; in brief, collective action problems are situations in which individual rational self-interested behavior leads to worse outcomes for everyone involved than could be achieved through mutual commitment to cooperative action, and time horizon problems occur when the discounting of future costs and benefits leads to a sub-optimal short-sightedness in rational self-interested individual and collective behavior).

Separating out social institutions from non-social-institutional technologies (i.e., what we normally think of when we think of “technologies”), we can discern four social institutional modalities: Hierarchies, markets, norms, and ideologies. Hierarchies are authority structures comprised of formal rules centrally enforced by means of explicit rewards and punishments. Markets are mutually beneficial systems of exchange, in which one’s share of the benefits of collective action is determined by the market value of their contribution to it. Norms are unwritten rules diffusely and informally enforced through the social approval and disapproval of others. And ideologies are internalized beliefs and values enforced through self-policing and auto-sanctioned by cognitive dissonance (in the form of self-inflicted feelings of guilt or shame).

Actual social institutions and social institutional paradigms are comprised of blends and hybrids of these modalities, articulated with technologies, responding to a combination of the organizational demands and opportunities presented by technologies, related and independent collective action and time horizon problems, and the demands and opportunities posed by the diffuse organic psychological and emotional reflexive reactions to all of these other changes.

The various social sciences, with differing focal points but considerable overlap, examine the dynamics of the various aspects and various overlapping and cross-cutting organizing principles (“paradigms”) of this social institutional landscape. Though differing disciplines and schools within disciplines often utilize superficially conflicting or incompatible theoretical lenses, much of the perceived mutual exclusivity of perspectives evaporates when these perspectives are combined under the umbrella of a comprehensive social systems paradigm such as the one I am describing here (much as string theory in physics reconciles quantum mechanics and relativity).

Paradigms shift when a new guiding principle is used, or an old guiding principle is used in a new way, in the social institutional as well as social theoretical context. Changing physical power sources, for instance (such as the advent of the steam engine or electrification), creates rippling new challenges and opportunities, a need to adapt architecturally, organizationally, and economically to the new principle. The change from monarchy to popular sovereignty that occurred during the 17th-19th centuries in several Western European and Western European derived nations reversed the principal-agent relationship between government and populace (transforming the government from principal to agent, and the populace from agent to principal), accompanied by continuing cascades of social institutional and ideological accommodations and adaptations. (Interestingly, the political ideology in the United States today that is rooted in 18th century American Revolutionary ideology is based largely on the anachronistic rejection of government as principal and populace as agent that motivated the American Revolution).

Revolutions (whether political, technological, economic, or cultural) are essentially just such paradigm shifts, in science catalyzed by an accumulation of anomalies within an existing paradigm; in technology by limits imposed by existing technologies combined with “opportunity niches” provided by the current technological and economic landscape (see The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology); in politics by the limits imposed by the current regime on certain empowered or ready-to-be-self-empowered interest groups and the opportunities they perceive (e.g., American Independence, African American Civil Rights, various post-colonial national independence movements); and in culture by the diffuse organic adaptations and adjustments that ripple through the institutional landscape as a result of these other changes, involving a combination of aesthetics (fine arts, music, cuisine, etc.), entertainments and public celebrations, and psychologically and emotionally motivated cognitive adaptations and reactions.

There are two types of processes that memes can undergo during their residence in a human mind: 1) They can be implicitly accepted intact and modified only unconsciously and unintentionally (if at all), or 2) they can be worked on, in conjunction with and through utilization of other memes, critiqued, evaluated, intentionally modified, synthesized, and/or woven into a larger cognitive framework. Technological memes as discussed by Brian Arthur in The Nature of Technology, for instance, undergo the second process.

Sometimes and to some extent these clash with sets of memes associated primarily with the first process, memes that are reproduced as elements of authoritative traditions, taken as “gospel.” Sometimes and to some extent the two types of meme processes articulate with one another in mutually reinforcing and synergistic ways. And these two interactions can occur simultaneously between the same two sets of memes. It can be argued, for instance, that though the memes of the Medieval Catholic Church and the early products of modern science were often and most obviously in conflict with one another, they were also in some ways mutually reinforcing, the monotheism at the heart of Catholicism providing a coherent “creation” for science to explore.

The conflicts themselves can generate or invigorate particular social institutional innovations. The rise in popularity of home schooling in the United States, for instance, emerges to a large extent from the aversion of some religious fundamentalists to the secularized secondary socialization provided by public schools. 

The social institutional landscape has a nested and overlapping dynamical fractal structure, with some small subset of memes shared almost universally by global humanity, and the rest by smaller swathes of humanity of every magnitude down to the individual level. Transnational linguistic groups, national or regional cultures, international professional communities, afficianados of theater or a local sports team, local peer groups and families, these and almost unlimited other such groupings can share meme-sets ranging from specialized shared knowledge to particular opinions or judgments, rumors or observations or shared jokes rustling through them like a breeze through tall grass.

Some are highly contagious, articulating well with human psychological predispositions or existing internal cognitive landscapes, spreading far and wide. Some become obsolete, dated by the flow of events or by the duration of attention spans, and contract again into oblivion after “lives” ranging from the very local and fleeting to the very widespread and long enduring.

Individual internal cognitive landscapes are comprised of a unique intersection of these differentially distributed memes, most, though shared in essence, slightly modified in the individual mind by the already existing cognitive landscape of metaphorical frames and narratives into which they fit themselves. And all of this is in constant flux at all levels, new memes emerging, spreading out in branching and expanding tentacles, which themselves are branching and expanding recursively, shrinking back, billions doing so simultaneously, converging into new coherent sets of memes which take on lives of their own.

If we imagine each meme as a color, and each variation as a shade of that color, then we would have billions of distinct colors and trillions of distinct shades flowing in diverse expanding and contracting fractal patterns through the mind of humanity, interacting in almost unlimited unique and creative ways as they converge in particular minds and groups of minds, each individual human being defined, in conjunction with their unique set of genes, by their unique set of memes organized into simultaneously shared and individuated metaphorical frames and narratives. This is the graphic of our social institutional landscape: mind-bogglingly complex, flowing and dynamic, throbbing with a life of its own, shot through with the transient borders and categories imposed by our imaginations, borders and categories which themselves are artifacts of the mind in constant flux on varying time scales. (See The Fractal Geometry of Social Change for a continuation of this theme).

Precise analyses of various kinds -political, economic, and cultural- can be organized under this paradigmatic umbrella, articulating with one another in new and more robust ways. In future posts, I will frequently explore specific historical developments, current events, and political, economic, and social issues in the light of the framework outlined above (as I have in fact done in many previous posts). Much is gained by creating an accommodating and encompassing analytical language through which to explore and examine the complex and subtle dynamics of the world in which we live.

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Brian Arthur’s thesis on the evolution of technology in his book The Nature of Technology (with thanks to Rick Munoz for the gift) dovetails so nicely with my broader paradigm of human social institutional ecology, addressing precisely that aspect which I had mostly left to the side (see, e.g., The Politics of Consciousness, in which I identify “social institutional and technological regimes” as the paradigms into which evolving memes aggregate, but focus on social institutions and ideologies), that this post is largely a synopsis of Arthur’s ideas, extended into and blended with “my own” marginal contribution. (The book is well worth reading; my summary here does not do it justice).

In brief, Arthur’s thesis is that technologies, which are essentially “programmed” natural phenomena, are comprised of assemblies and components, and subassemblies and subcomponents, down to an elemental level, with constant marginal modifications and recombinations of subcomponents, creating technological domains (e.g., digital, electronic, genetic, etc.), thus evolving within the context of these technological ecosystems (an idea I began to address before reading Arthur’s book, in The Evolutionary Ecology of Audio-Visual Entertainment (& the nested & overlapping subsystems of Gaia), Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, and The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix). The entire corpus of technology, in articulation with the evolving economy and legal system, evolves as well, causing cascades of destruction of linkages to technologies made obsolete by innovations, and cascades of new technologies made possible or necessary by other recent innovations.

The key to Arthur’s paradigm is that technologies are purposive programmings of natural phenomena (including human behavioral phenomena), and so both include (along with what is more conventionally visualized as “technology”) those social institutional innovations that are purposive (e.g., currency instruments) and exclude anything that developed haphazardly (e.g., informal social norms), though they both coevolve, adapting to one another. Technological evolution differs from Darwinian biological evolution primarily in the fact that new “species” (i.e., inventions) do not emerge merely as the result of an accretion of incremental changes selected by virtue of their relative reproductive success, but also by virtue of rather sudden new configurations of old technologies, and applications of new principles to old challenges. But these novel forms, whether the small increments of engineers making new applications of old technologies to solve novel problems, or the larger innovations of inventors utilizing new principles to address new or old challenges, are then subjected to that same Darwinian lathe.

Some of the distinguishing characteristics of technologies are that they are recursive (they are comprised of components that are themselves technologies, which in turn are comprised of components that are in turn technologies), modular (comprised of main assemblies performing main functions and subassemblies performing auxiliary functions), programmings of natural phenomena, and constantly evolving from earlier forms, midwifed by human ingenuity, but generated, in a sense, by earlier innovations. Each problem confronted implicates both backward and forward linkages, affecting the components of the technology worked with, and the possibilities with which new problems can be addressed.

Technologies form a kind of language within their domain, which practitioners draw on the way a composer or author draws on the musical or written language that is their medium, expressing a desired objective through recourse to the known phrases and grammars of those languages. It develops according to a combinatorial evolution, with something that developed in another domain for another reason available to those who recognize a novel use for it elsewhere. The memes of technological evolution are free radicals, able to attach to any other group of memes where they may have a particular basis for thriving.

Technology evolves in tandem with science, both the means of scientific discovery (the instruments used) and informed by science (finding the principles on which to base technological advances).

Technology evolves from few to many, from simple to complex, beginning with direct exploitations of natural phenomena (fire, sharp objects, etc.), and growing on the possibilities created by their exploitation, with new technologies and technological domains opening up new opportunities for yet more innovations. This is not unlike the evolution of biological and social institutional forms, which evolved from a single cell into the plethora of life now on Earth, and from more or less homogeneous primate cultures to the great variation of human cultures generated by geographic dispersion and differentiation.

Nor is the winnowing out process particularly different, in which some technologies (species, cultures) become dominant and widespread, eclipsing others, sometimes even eliminating them all together, forming distinct branches where an undifferentiated continuum would otherwise have been.

The processes of innovation rippling through the system (by posing new problems and creating new opportunities, by requiring new auxiliary assemblies, by rendering old ones obsolete, and the linkages that depended wholly on them obsolete as well), sweeping up economic and legal structures with it (creating new needs for new infrastructure, new forms of organization, new legal contexts, etc., while rendering others obsolete and archaic), includes a variety of stages, such as “standard engineering” (adapting an existing technology to varying contexts), adding on (improving performance and addressing problems by tacking on new subsystems), reaching limits and being faced with needs (trying to capture new potentialities that would require some improvement that current technologies can’t yet provide, and seeking a new principle to exploit to provide it), and undergoing a paradigm shift as a result (creating a new technology, that then sets in motion all of the rippling changes new technologies set into motion).

What does this mean for public policy? Public policy is, essentially, the attempt to establish and implement social institutional technologies, based on principles of human behavioral phenomena. From the haphazardly accumulated mass of social institutional materials, the challenge is to find components and assemblies that are usable, to combine and recombine them in fluent ways, in pursuit of specific objectives. One example would be what I have called “Political Market Instruments” (see Deforestation: Losing an Area the Size of England Every Year), which simply adapt the combined technologies of market exchange and regulatory oversight to the goal of increasing the production of a public good or decreasing the production of a public bad. It is an excellent example of Arthur’s modularity in action, since it is the integration of technologies that had not previously been so combined.

Some examples of social institutional technologies and how they combine include Democracy, the U.S. Constitution, and corporate business organization, resulting in, among other things, constitutionally protected massive funding for commercial-saturated campaign cycles. Many would argue that new technologies are demanded by the problems created through this combination of old ones. Another example is the borrowing from markets to combine its principles to public education in the form of vouchers. These examples point to the fact that while we gain much from our technologies, we also create new problems with them, and need to pick and choose how and when to implement them, always in service to a vision of how to forge our way into the future most in service to human well-being in the fullest sense.

Human social institutional and technological evolution is not something that occurs exclusively “in” the human mind, via the differentially successful reproduction of memes and their aggregation into paradigms (shifting in response to accumulations of anomalies). At least in regards to successful purposive systems, the natural phenomena upon which those memes and paradigms are working are in some ways (as Arthur points out) more the “genetic material” of those evolving forms than the packets of information working them. The programmed phenomena themselves form the alphabet and vocabulary of technological innovation, which the memes order into a grammar.

An example of an obvious human behavioral phenomenon on which the social institutional technologies of markets draw is: People will exchange what they have for something they value more highly. Another one, which allows the shift from barter to currency, is: People will recognize some fungible and generally fairly compact thing of agreed upon value, in large enough supply to serve the purpose but small enough supply to retain its value, as a medium of exchange. Many such social institutional technologies exist, based on how we respond to potential costs and benefits (including hierarchically imposed rewards and punishments and diffusely imposed  social approval and disapproval), how we internalize values, and so on. The need to base social policies on an understanding of these phenomena is critical.

But, in a sense, there are two interwoven currents in our social institutional evolutionary ecology: The evolution of technologies (“purposive systems”), including social institutional technologies, and the haphazard maelstrom of psychologically and emotionally (rather than social systemically and economically) motivated reactions to it. The distinction is similar to the natural landscape around us, from which we have sculpted some architectures of our own. (Both, it might be argued, are evolutionary ecologies, and bear some of the characteristics described by Arthur, since even the haphazardly evolving social institutional landscape can borrow from other cultures or social institutional milieu and combine forms in new ways).

The purposeful and utlilitarian stream is characterized by a relatively high signal-to-noise ratio (see The Signal-To-Noise Ratio), utilizing the grammar of various domains relatively fluently. The psychologically and emotionally unreflective reactions to it are characterized by a relatively low signal-to-noise ratio, speaking internal languages whose correspondence to external reality is less disciplined (see Ideology v. Methodology). Technologies correspond to scientific and legal methodologies, while the evolutionary currents around them correspond to collections of arbitrary or unreflectively formed beliefs and rituals. The latter evolve as well, and may serve many human needs, but with less precision and reliability.

To be sure, sometimes technologies are quite toxic, and cultural rituals are quite benign. But the toxicity of the former can not be nullified by the benign qualities of the latter: It can only be addressed through another purposeful system, another technology, designed with the intention of addressing it. When there is a purpose beyond the inherent value of the thing itself, an architecture is required (such as shelter from the elements); when there is no purpose beyond that inherent value (such as a conversation with a friend or a party), no architecture beyond that which facilitates the event is required.

So the purposeful processes by which technologies emerge and develop, particularly social institutional technologies, and particularly those mediated by government action, slog through the viscous resistance of emotionally and psychologically motivated beliefs and rituals, bludgeoned by Luddites and chased by torch-bearing mobs. The progress of human consciousness (including that portion designed to address the problems caused by other products of the same process) is thus encumbered by those clinging to some sacred tradition and determined to tether all humanity to it.

The result is not stagnation, since change is constant. It is not an avoidance of the pitfalls and dangers of progress, but rather a blindfolding of it, an assurance that though forward progress will be slower and clumsier, it will also more certainly and more heavily be laden with the catastrophes of self-destruction that are inherent to stumbling down unexamined and danger-strewn paths.

Negotiating this evolving ecosystem of social institutions, technologies, and their interactions with both individuals and the natural environment involves more than hammering together a set of purposive systems. It is a vibrant whole, a metabolism, more organic than mechanistic. Understanding how it flows, how changes ripple through it, how its complexity and interconnectedness forms the roiling currents we are riding, is the ultimate art and science of consciously articulating our lives with their context in ways that allow us to fulfil potentials we have only barely begun to imagine. To some extent, these potentials will be realized by technologies, including social institutional technologies. But human consciousness is more than the sum of its parts, and the more our technologies and ideologies flow and undulate with the rhythms of the evolving natural, social institutional, and technological systems within which they are embedded, and with which they articulate, the more fully we will realize the full breadth and depth of our humanity.

Ironically, the haphazardly formed social institutional landscape from which technology carves out its architectures is approximated again in the ecology of that architecture itself. It is not the escape from that beautiful dance of chaos that holds the greatest promise for humanity, but rather the perfection of the art of dancing to its rhythms.

(See The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions and The Fractal Geometry of Social Change for a continuation of this theme).

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