What makes a good culture?

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.