1. Culture as Information
The history of cultures may be written in terms of information, information that arises (or is incorporated), information that is deleted or lost, information that is transformed and integrated as well as information that is active in controlling our perceptions, thoughts and actions.
A culture may thus be viewed as a bunch of information. What is passed from one generation to the next is a set of artifacts plus an amount of information that tells you how to do things, how to perceive or interpret the world, how to think, but also what has happened. When you perceive, think or do something, you may view this as something comparable to the execution of programs which may be viewed as a form of “active information”.
It should be noted that the information in a culture is not necessarily “true”. A culture might contain ideological information, for example. The cultural information might also contain fiction. Describing how such information is “acting” inside the workings of a culture is beyond the scope of this article.
Artifacts as well as institutions, procedures and organizations, can be viewed as a product of the information (the know-how of how to make or organize them and the plans of using that know-how). On the other hand, artifacts are also a source of new information since they normally have more properties than what the knowledge about them and about their production describes.
One may compare the cultural information to the genes or the genotype of organisms and the artifacts and actions of people “encoded” or “programed” by this information to the bodies and behaviors, or the phenotype, of organisms.
It should be noted that culture in this sense is not restricted to human beings, although human culture is by several orders of magnitude more complex than that of other species, even when we look at cultures without writing.
2. Creativity and Refelxivity
The term “creativity” may be used not only with respect to individuals but also with respect to whole cultures (and sub-groups of them). We could define it as the ability to generate new information. “New”, in this context, means that the information cannot be derived (in the sense of logical inferences or computations) from information that existed before.
There might be different ways new information (“innovation”) might arise. One source of new information is obviously the outside world the culture and its members are interacting with. Information of what happened is kept in memory or stored in other forms (e.g. writing) and this information can then be integrated into the way the culture is working.
An important property of information and its processing, and thus of culture, is its potential reflexivity. Information can be described by other information. We can think about ourselves and our cultures (and about our thoughts about them) and make changes to it. We can enter a meta-level of description and discourse.
Our reflections about culture, however, can never be exhaustive. Since culture is creative or innovative, new information can arise in it that cannot be derived from previously existing information; any description of it is incomplete or refers only to a certain stage in the historical development of the culture. Cultures are historically changing entities. The way the culture works and the way it develops can change, i.e. culture can reprogram itself.
Academic disciplines about culture can therefore not be sciences in the narrower sense of the word. A complete, exact theory of culture and history is not possible. Culture is an example of what I have called “programmed matter” in another article, and as such can be moved (or programmed) out of the scope of any theory about it.
3. Information Technology
Among all innovations, those that change the way information is exchanged, stored, transmitted, communicated, copied and processed are the most important ones. These include
- language and its sub-systems (and I believe that this is actually an invented part of culture with only a very thin biological or genetic basis if any at all – but that’s a topic for another article),
- logic or, more generally, methods of thinking (which, I think, are also largely cultural, not genetically determined),
- mnemonic methods, including poetic meters, rhymes etc.
- pictures (paintings etc.)
- writing (with all the inventions supporting it, like ink, paper etc.)
- schools, libraries, publishers and other institutions for storing and passing of information
- mathematics (numbers…)
- postal services
- bureaucracy, files etc.
- notations (mathematical, chemical, music…)
- telecommunication (telegraphs, telephones, etc.)
- dictionaries (see picture above)
- scientific and scholarly methods
- measurement instruments
- records, tapes, CDs, hard disks
- electronic storage devices
- programming languages
- the internet
- smart phones
This (deliberately unsystematic) list is by far not exhaustive. More such things might come to your mind if you think about it. Some inventions (like writing, printing and computers) are more important than others. All these information technologies (in the widest sense of the word) change the way culture (as an information process) is working. So cultures are able to completely change their own infrastructure, i.e. the way they are implemented in terms of the physical world “below” them.
Storing and processing of information always uses up some resources, as does every process in a culture. But that aspect of culture or civilization – culture as a physical process consuming (and that might mean: destroying) resources, and the role information and creativity play in it – has to be the topic of a different article.
(The picture, showing the title page of an early edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, is from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Britannica1778.jpg. )