My latest for Wired:
Cliodynamics is a field of study created by Peter Turchin in the early 2000s. The idea is to use data as a means of predicting the future, but also as a way of testing theories about what happened in the past. You build a model that seeks to explain history, and then you test this model using real historical data.
The movement’s latest aim is to analyze the origins of complex societies. In a paper published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Turchin and a trans-disciplinary team from the University of Connecticut, University of Exeter, and the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis attempt to overturn the long standing belief that large-scale states are the product of agriculture.
Early humans were hunter-gatherers. They had relatively simple social structures, which consisted of perhaps a few dozen people, all of whom knew each other, and they didn’t engage in complex cooperative tasks. But eventually, complex societies evolved — complete with governments, armies, agriculture, education, and other large scale, cooperative projects. With their paper, Turchin and his collaborators analyzed the spread of the social norms that allowed societies to expand across millions of people.
“You cannot have a large state without bureaucrats, but bureaucrats are expensive. You have to pay them,” he says. “So the big question is how do complex societies evolve when they are so expensive?”
The standard theory, which Turchin calls the “bottom up” theory, is that humans invented agriculture around 10,000 years ago, providing resource surpluses that freed people up for other ventures. But what Turchin and his team have found is that the bottom-up theory is wrong, or at least incomplete. “Competitions between societies, which historically took the form of warfare, drive the evolution of complex societies,” he says.
While this doesn’t prove that war pre-dates agriculture, it does challenge some ideas about the origins of war.
Bullying is a means of asserting the social order of popularity and keeping lower-status members in their place; the seductive pleasure of cruelty is a rewarding, and sometimes addicting, privilege for higher-status members (but not highest — they don’t need to bully). Bullying is not committed by individuals qua individuals against individuals qua individuals; it is committed by individuals who experience themselves as representatives of a social class within a social hierarchy against other individuals who experience themselves in being bullied as representatives of a social class within that same social hierarchy.
Full Story: Siderea: One Thought on Bullying
Rethinking in this frame would require us to reassess whether Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were bullies or had been bullied.
Atossa Araxia Abrahamian on Paleofantasy by Marlene Zuk and the assumptions of the paleo lifestyle set, noting that it has become a popular diet amongst libertarians:
Charges of hypocrisy, however amusing, are facile. Paleo is an improvement on a diet of processed, sugary junk. It’s not the first diet to banish starches, and it certainly won’t be the last. In fact, by any other name, the Paleo diet would be just that — a diet.
But more substantial problems lurk in the reasoning behind Paleo principles. By assuming that all that was once natural is now good, militant Paleo leans on biological determinism to back up its theories. While it may not advocate for a complete reversion to cave-dwelling, it accepts that we evolved in a certain way to do certain things and not others, and that advances in technology, civilization, and culture can do little to change that. This logic, however seductive, is incomplete. You can’t get an ought from a was. […]
Incomplete or flawed interpretations of our biology have long been used to marginalize women, racial groups, even entire civilizations, and nutrition may well become the next variant in this pattern of discrimination. If rice isn’t “natural,” does that make those entire continents with highly developed cultures who eat it “un-natural”? Doesn’t agriculture, however flawed it may be in certain societies, support billions of people? Let’s not forget that for centuries women were considered ineligible to participate in most professions, sports, and diversions on the basis of their supposed female “nature.” Are modern bread-eaters somehow less human than those carrying out “primal” urges by sprinting, lifting, and eating meat?
These troubling questions are probably not the point of an apparently well-meaning lifestyle program. Many adopters of the Paleo diet do so for no reason other than weight loss, or vanity, or ailments caused by certain foods; others are simply curious about how so-called “ancestral” nutrition will affect them, or how certain types of foods affect their bodies. If their giddy testimonials are to be believed, the Paleo diet can cure everything from diabetes to anxiety attacks, which sounds wonderful. Still, the social and political implications of Paleo reasoning ought to be more closely examined, especially as the lifestyle gains adherents.
Full Story: Natural’s Not In It
Adam Rothstein on preserving tools and specialized knowledge (such as science and engineering) in case of a collapse:
Any number of aspiring futurists, science-fiction authors, preppers and Dark Mountaineers can present us with a point-by-point plan of how to survive a species-threatening cataclysm, the true effectiveness of which can only be judged in practice. So let us leave survival up to those who will need to hack it, and instead ask what can we do now to make things a bit easier for our post-apocalyptic children of the future?
We might bury useful tools everywhere in a strategy resonant with Philip K. Dick’s The Penultimate Truth, to make surprising archaeological Easter Eggs of power saws and streaming media tablets to the future’s struggling humankind. But without cellular data contracts and extension cords, these might not prove very useful. Far better to provide them with knowledge, argues Grassie, in order to kick start their inevitable journey back through scientific progress to re-learn the things we will lose. You can give a post-human descendant species-branch a CD-ROM and they can surf Encarta for a day. Or you can teach a post-human descendant species-branch to write objective secondarily-sourced encyclopedia articles, and they can have their own Wikipedia-esque debates about editing procedures for the rest of their brutish and short lives.
Full Story: The State: Satellites of History
Rothstein goes on to note some attempts to preserve knowledge for the future, and questions whether the endeavor matters.
Still playing catchup:
An intriguing new long-term study of Filipino men has discovered that becoming a father lowers a man’s testosterone level. More specifically, what really drops male testosterone is the amount of time spent caring for children; men who spent three hours or more per day caring for a child had significantly less testosterone than those dads who were less involved with their children. It’s not that men with lower testosterone were “naturally” more inclined to be caregivers in the first place; based on the voluminous longitudinal data, it’s the act of caring itself that reduced testosterone significantly.
An otherwise reasonable New York Times piece on the study begins with the somber warning, “This is probably not the news most fathers want to hear.” But as several researchers in the article point out, this is actually great news for dads—and for all men. One of our great enduring myths about males is that we are biologically hardwired for violence and promiscuity, and that any attempt to encourage us to take on a nurturing, tender role is destined to end in failure. The “Caveman Cult” crowd, which includes a great many popular writers on gender, suggests that female physiology is optimized for caregiving while male physiology is optimized for conquest. And when pressed to cite the chief factor in this supposed male inability to care for children, these defenders of traditional gender roles almost invariably cite the overarching influence of testosterone.
The BBC reports:
Anthropologists have discovered three human fossils that are between 1.78 and 1.95 million years old. The specimens are of a face and two jawbones with teeth.
The finds back the view that a skull found in 1972 ago is of a separate species of human, known as Homo rudolfensis. The skull was markedly different to any others from that time. It had a relatively large brain and long flat face.
But for 40 years the skull was the only example of the creature and so it was impossible to say for sure whether the individual was an unusual specimen or a member of a new species.
With the discovery of the three new fossils researchers can say with more certainty that H.rudolfensis really was a separate type of human that existed around two million years ago alongside other species of humans.
I thought the idea that humans killed off the Neanderthals was already losing currency. And now a paper published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution casts more doubt on that particular hypothesis.
i09’s Alasdair Wilkins summarizes:
A team of Spanish and Swedish researchers say that new DNA evidence paints a far grimmer view of the state of Neanderthals. Their analysis suggests the Neanderthal population had crashed 50,000 years ago, and a relatively small band of survivors then recolonized central and western Europe before their final end 20,000 years later. In a statement, Love Dalén of the Swedish Museum of Natural History explained what they discovered:
Instead the paper’s authors suggest climate change had a greater impact on neanderthals than previously thought.
Alasdair Wilkins writes: “This also raises the question of just how humans would have really fared against a Neanderthal population at full strength. I’m sensing some pretty serious alternate history fodder here…”
Image from New X-Men
here and here.) They’ve gone missing after narco traffickers wiped out the guard post protecting the tribe. Observers fear the worst.
The Brazilian guard post protecting the uncontacted Indians who were filmed from the air earlier this year has been over-run by heavily-armed men, suspected to be drug-traffickers. It has been ransacked and vital equipment destroyed.
Fears are now mounting for the welfare of the Indians after workers from FUNAI (the government’s Indian Affairs Department) found one of the traffickers’ rucksacks with a broken arrow inside. A rapid survey by government officials has shown no trace of the Indians, who made worldwide headlines in February.
Photo by Kris Krug
Klint Finley: Please tell us what you mean by “cyborg anthropology” and explain what it is that you do on a day-to-day basis.
Amber Case: Cyborg anthropology is the study of human and non-human interaction, especially tools and networks that are formed by networks of human and non human objects.
My work relates to tracing the history of tool use and how it has affected culture over time.
For instance, one can look at a hammer and notice that over the last 300 years the design and function of the hammer has not changed very much.
The shape and form and function are still similar but when one looks at the first computers, which were large machines running on vacuum tubes, and computers now — one sees that the computer’s overall look and function and shape and size has drastically changed.
So then one must look at the idea of the hammer or knife. An animal must evolve a better tooth, or sharp edge in which to capture and kill prey. If a tooth breaks, or is not sharp enough, or the animal is not fast enough, that animal dies and cannot reproduce.
But the human has externalized the evolution by making a tool outside of their mouths. The knife is an extension of the tooth that can be thrown. The speed and excellence of the knife depends on the worker or the person who has power enough to have a worker who can create that tool.
Once we externalized objects and processes, we externalized evolution.
But the computer is different. Tool use has been physical for most of human evolution. Now we see computers as an interface not to the physical self, but to the mental self.
The mental self is an internal space, which is unseen, and a lot of what we see on a computer is unseen unless we look at it through an interface or portal.
So what I do in cyborg anthropology is consider how people upload their bodies into hyperspace, and how humanness is produced through machines and machines through humanness.
I also consider online presence, cell phones and the technosocial self.
Photo by Andrew Hyde
What methodology do you employ? What is a day in the life of a cyborg anthropologist like?
My methodology is mainly qualitative analysis, ethnography and participant observation.
What I mean by that is that I use the anthropological method of ethnography to collect observations through participating in groups of people involved in tool use or digital networks and see how they work, play, communicate, and what their values are.
Part of my work is letting people know that they’ve always been part human and part machine. Donna Haraway talked about everyone being a low tech cyborg. That for some part of every day people are connected to a machine.
In my recent study of Facebook, I’ve combed through user stories and behavior and placed people into general groups of interaction. I’ve also studied how the interface - or the participation architecture of the site influences how people act as people begin to move online - and live out a great deal of their lives there, the shape of an interface really affects how people move so a lot of my day is spent combing through the internet looking at that sort of behavior and jotting it down into a digital field journal of sorts.
The other part is looking for new developments. Things that break the norms. Those are harbingers of new trends and systemic shifts.
What are some of your most interesting recent findings?
Some of my favorite things have been mistakes. For instance, when a middle aged woman thinks that she’s sending a private message to someone she’s been seeing, and in reality she posted on her wall for everyone to see.
Yahoo Answers are amazing. It’s where a lot of very young kids ask each other ridiculous questions - and young kids answer back.
Also, looking at people’s signatures. Not their handwritten ones, but their digital ones. How they compose sentences and where they use capitalization. How they respond to things, etc. It really tells a lot about who they are.
The other thing I like to discover is digital artifacts. There are some digital archeologists and historians who try to keep data alive and in circulation. When one considers it, and Stewart Brand has mentioned this quite a bit… data is very fragile.
When one considers the pyramids and symbols carved into stone, that data is still around today. It’s been thousands of years and we still have it vs. Twitter, where data is regularly dumped and not saved.
One of the problems is that machines don’t get heavier when we put data into them. Which seems strange, because information has weight in real life.
Jason Scott is a great data archivist. he runs textfiles.com. He saves BBS forums and stuff from the 80s that might have been erased over time.
It’s funny that you say that. Sometimes when I delete a lot off stuff from my laptop, I actually feel like my laptop is lighter. I know it isn’t, but it just seems like it is.
It’s interesting how you say that- it’s a sign that your senses are tied to a machine - that your machine has become an external brain of sorts.
The first time my computer crashed I felt I had lost half my brain.
Here is a conversation I had with @strangeways about weight.
@caseorganic: My old computer is being reformatted. I can feel the files being deleted. It’s a strange feeling, like re-writing memories.
@strangeways: I think it is completely possible. I’ve felt it many times before. There’s a transition from physical effects to mental ones.
@strangeways Physical storage came first, then mental storage. I bet mental phantom neuron syndrome will become more prevalent.
@caseorganic Sort of feels like amputation, doesn’t it? I wonder if one can experience phantom limb with a virtual body part.
There was a campaign for Maxtor about data. It becomes increasingly easy to put data into a system, but the data, once in the system, has an escape velocity like a black hole. The computer is beginning to liquefy objects around it, like a black hole. Especially the iPhone - taking physical objects like compasses, games, cameras, notebooks, date books and address books and digitizing them, centralizing them into one device.
What sorts of tools do you find most useful in your work?
I use a lot of TextEdit. I copy and paste things in, label them, and then name the file with descriptive words. That way my computer becomes a search engine for my research.
But the best tool is SKITCH and Flickr. Skitch can take a screenshot and upload it automatically to my Flickr account. It’s my external brain. So I used Skitch and Flickr symbiotically to take a quick screenshot of whatever I’m working on.
A random example from Amber’s Flickr stream
I use Moodle for private notes to myself, and I have some Pbwiki accounts. But Flickr is really the best. It allows sources, timestamps, tagging, and searching. And it allows comments, so my digital journal becomes a living creation.
You don’t have a Phd or other post-graduate degree, is that correct?
I do not have a PhD.
And you work in the private sector as a consultant?
Why did you decide to go into the private sector instead of continuing in academia? Do you think you will ever go back to academia?
I went to the private sector first because I just got out of college. I wrote a thesis on mobile phones and their technosocial sites of interaction. I got a degree in sociology and anthropology.
I was told to work two years in the “real world” before going back to academia, going straight to grad school would leave me at a disadvantage. First, I wouldn’t know what the real world needed, and secondly, I wouldn’t know anything else except for academia.
My favorite conference was MIT’s futures of entertainment, which I spoke at in November 2008. I liked the conference because it was a hybrid event. It brought together people from industry and academia. Industry can beneif a lot from academia, but not from 200 page reports. And academia can benefit a lot from industry, but not from silly marketing statements.
So I wanted both perspectives. Someone has to be able to translate between the two. Its useful, else a lot of miscommunication happens and redundancies occur.
What advice would you give to liberal arts majors looking to make a career outside of academia?
Network. Network a whole lot.
Don’t network in a silly way. Network honestly. Find people who inspire and invigorate you, who make you work on things harder than ever before.
Create an online presence that is ubiquitous and enjoyable to interface with. Let it be known who you want to be. Put that on your business card and on your social profiles.
Be uniform in your focus. Set goals for who you want to meet.
Become a resource for people. Connect them. Have a blog or set of resources that aggregates and disperses useful information in your area of interest.
Attend local conferences. Speak at events. Volunteer at conferences.
Speaking is the easiest way to meet everyone in the room. Volunteering is the easiest way to meet all of the registrants, especially ones you might be too afraid to talk to.
Don’t be afraid to find the smartest person in the room and ask them how they got there.
Fail daily. Fail a whole bunch. Challenge yourself and don’t worry if you have no supporters. Be the first one there.
… That sounds like a promotional book, lol.
And speaking of conferences - you were a founder and organizer of CyborgCamp, and the second one is coming up in a few months. Could you tell us about the impetus of that event?
The idea behind CyborgCamp was to have a forum for the discussion of the past, present, and future. The conference was also livestreamed so that it would be accessible to anyone in the world. It was seen in over 50 countries.
The conference was not really created by me, but by a community that sprang up suddenly on Twitter. Within 3 hours, CyborgCamp had a website, a wiki, a sponsor, and 9 volunteers.
It wasn’t a choice for me. I knew I had to make the conference, and I strove to make it an invigorating experience. I found some great speakers, like Ward Cunningham, inventor of the Wiki.
The unconference part allowed the attendees to discuss what was really on their minds. We discussed everything. From agriculture to technoculture, to insulin pumps, to connectivity and the digital device, to strategy and the future. It was a cocreated event, and it was amazing to be a part of it.
A number of people in Brasil watched the conference and there will be a
CyborgCamp Brasil in May 2010.
The next domestic one will be in Portland in October.
Interesting column at Better Humans by James J. Hughes. A biological approach to thinking about love and sex:
Not just lust, but the amorphous ball of feeling called “love” itself is a biochemical phenomenon, amenable to manipulation. In Anatomy of Love, anthropologist Helen Fisher summarizes research arguing that love is composed of three biochemical process. The first process, driven by testosterone, is lust. The second process, infatuation, is controlled by dopamine, norepinephrine and phenylethylamine — amphetamine-like chemicals that produce feelings of euphoria. The lust and infatuation chemicals peak after a year, and for the lucky few relationships that survive their decline a new biochemical response emerges based on oxytocin, vasopression and endorphins, which produce feelings of intimacy, trust and affection.
(via Three River Tech Review)