School of Innovation Science, Eindhoven University of Technology, Eindhoven, Netherlands
Digital media have today an enormous diffusion, and their influence on the behavior of a vast part of the human population can hardly be underestimated. In this review I propose that cultural evolution theory, including both a sophisticated view of human behavior and a methodological attitude to modeling and quantitative analysis, provides a useful framework to study the effects and the developments of media in the digital age. I will first give a general presentation of the cultural evolution framework, and I will then introduce this more specific research program with two illustrative topics. The first topic concerns how cultural transmission biases, that is, simple heuristics such as “copy prestigious individuals” or “copy the majority,” operate in the novel context of digital media. The existence of transmission biases is generally justified with their adaptivity in small-scale societies. How do they operate in an environment where, for example, prestigious individuals possess not-relevant skills, or popularity is explicitly quantified and advertised? The second aspect relates to fidelity of cultural transmission. Digitally-mediated interactions support cheap and immediate high-fidelity transmission, in opposition, for example, to oral traditions. How does this change the content that is more likely to spread? Overall, I suggest the usefulness of a “long view” to our contemporary digital environment, contextualized in cognitive science and cultural evolution theory, and I discuss how this perspective could help us to understand what is genuinely new and what is not.
Digital media are media encoded in digital format, typically to be transmitted and consumed on electronic devices, such as computers and smartphones. Digital media of wide diffusion includes emails, digital audio and video recordings, ebooks, blogs, instant messaging, and more recently social media. Although, digital media started to be developed with the creation of digital computers in the 1940s, their wide cultural impact can be traced back only to two or three decades, with the widespread diffusion of personal computers and especially the internet (Briggs and Burke, 2009).
Social media and ubiquitous connectivity (e.g., allowed by portable digital devices) are even more recent developments. Facebook, in its early stage limited to university or high-school students and employees of a handful of companies, was open to the public 10 years ago, in September 2006 (Boyd and Ellison, 2007). The first version of the iPhone, which gave the initial momentum to the worldwide diffusion of smartphones, was launched shortly after, at the beginning of 2007 (West and Mace, 2010).
Despite that, digital media, and social media in particular, have today an enormous reach. Facebook for example counts, as of June 2016, more than 1.7 billion monthly active users1. The influence of digital media on the behavior of a vast part of the human population is unanimously recognized. As a consequence, academic interest for digital media has grown rapidly in different disciplines. Here, I will not attempt a review of the existing literature, but I will propose that a specific scientific field, cultural evolution, could provide a suitable framework to analyse how the massive diffusion of digital media influences human cultural behavior.
The article is structured as follows. In the next section I will provide a brief and general introduction to the field of cultural evolution, focusing on the aspects I consider more relevant for the study of contemporary digital media. These aspects are cultural evolution's naturalistic and quantitative approach and its commitment to develop hypotheses informed by cognitive science and evolutionary theory. I will then explore more in depth two areas of research where cultural evolution could give an original contribution. First, I will discuss how cultural transmission biases, i.e., simple rules such as “copy the majority” or “copy prestigious individuals,” a central topic in cultural evolutionary research, might influence cultural transmission in the digital age, and conversely how digitally-supported cultural transmission might disrupt these biases. I will explore at some length two of these biases, related to prestige and popularity. Second, I will examine how cultural evolutionary dynamics could be influenced by the fact that digitally-supported cultural transmission allows virtually error-free propagation of cultural traits. I will conclude suggesting that the cultural evolution framework places the digital age in a broader context, and I will discuss how this theoretical and historical “long view” could help us to better understand the changes we are confronted with in our society.