Monday, July 5, 2010

Aversion to computers in the social sciences: the story of ethno-telephony

For folks such as myself, who'd prefer to reduce human civilization and its economies and technological trends to a convenient, elegant set of equations, cultural lag is a bitch.

We'd like to think that when a better tool exists, or a new technology or practice offers to reduce hardship and increase happiness cost-free, the people of our good planet should see the light and change their ways overnight. This doesn't seem to happen. Tribeswomen in a remote African village refuse to take up long-handled brooms, instead using their traditional handbrooms, because forgoing back pain in their cleaning would be "lazy." Papuan warriors refuse to make their arrows fly truer by adding the fletchings they've seen the neighboring tribes use. The world's businesses haven't switched to OpenOffice. The list goes on.

Usually when we are confounded by a culture's decision not to adapt, the culprit is a value system that stands at odds with ours. Another culture sees value in tradition, or hardship, or battles with lower body counts. Other times, technological relinquishment seems to serve the purpose of preserving the hegemony of an incumbent hierarchy. This, I believe, had been the case, when I encountered my first textbook example of cultural lag in the field, while dealing with the exquisitely interesting culture of the American social scientist.

Ethno-telephony is a quantitative method in cultural geography, invented by Peveril Meigs in 1939. Meigs wanted a method to quantitatively map the French regions of Louisiana, so he got a bunch of phone books from different towns, counted all the French names, and made the excellent map depicted above. Now I know what you're thinking: "But a last name is hardly evidence of integration into the Louisiana Acadian cultural complex! Why, there may be whole towns with French last names where various social forces have completely anglicized the population, and the reverse might be true in other places!" Yes, good reader, you are right, but anything verging on quantitative is hard to come by in the study of culture, and we take what we can get.

Meigs's method kind of made it big. In fact, last time I checked, the premier journal of cultural geography was printing a couple articles per issue using this method. Geographers turned to the yellow pages and started asking even more interesting questions: Where is "dixieland"? Which people consider themselves "yankees"?

So when I was in school, way back in the year of 2006, I had this idea: "What the hell! All these guys are still counting phonebook entries by hand! Why doesn't someone make a program where you just type a query and it gives you a map?!" I looked online for a program like this, and after a while, I gave up and got my good friend, who had some minor scripting skills, to write a program. At the time, with a small sampling if phonebooks, some interpolation, and a bunch of graduate students working as slaves for many hours, people were turning out things like this map of dixie:

With our very modest, decidedly amateurish mechanization of the process, we made something that would require a few seconds of labor to produce this:

Then we got to thinking, "I wonder what the Latter Day Saints are, exactly?"

Who eats the most chicken?

Very soon, sitting in our living room, we had proven one longstanding theory and disproven another. We were conjuring religious denominational maps of hitherto unknown accuracy for the pleasure of satisfying our own curiosity. Every time we entered a few key strokes, we emulated months of work on the part of some poor troglodyte graduate student. We even pinned down Texas's infamous taco-barbecue line.

We said "Wait'll geographers get ahold of this! We're going to change the world!"

And so we approached geographers, first at our school and then at other places. We said "Use this! We'll make your maps for free!" And one after another, they all politely said "no thanks." Nobody was interested in using the new method (which was, of course, the old method, only done automatically). Everyone chose to continue doing things as they had been doing them.

Ethno-telephony didn't die that day. Grad students still count names in phonebooks, and the maps still get made. "But why!?", you ask? I think I might know.

I started to ask myself how research is valued. How is tenure established? Do we give people acclaim and money for contributing to the sum of human knowledge, or for suffering? I've come to believe the latter.

The problem with running culture maps automatically is that it doesn't give anyone a headache. What distinguished professor wants to open his paper with "So I typed this cool term into the search field"? Why, that doesn't sound academic at all! Sure the maps have 10X the resolution. Sure the search is exhaustive and doesn't rely on sampling. But no one will give you a medal for that kind of research; it's just too easy.

Imagine you're a cryptography analyst, handsomely paid, and someone invents a magic machine that makes all cryptanalysis completely automatic. Just press a button, and the thing is done for you, in a time frame which humans can't shorten by any stroke of anthropic genius. How would this bode for your field? I can tell you one thing: you wouldn't continue to be handsomely paid.

After the ethno-telephony incident (and before leaving the social sciences altogether), I believe I picked up on other deliberate inefficiencies in the social sciences, and I've come to believe that there's a great body of knowledge, ripe to be known, which is kept from us because it would ruin the research agendas of many distinguished professors, perhaps in one day.

And perhaps things are as they should be (though my undergraduate ambitions of singlehandedly revolutionizing the social sciences did not go quietly).

But I still know where the taco-barbecue line is.

(If you want to play with a really buggy, old, unsupported, ugly version of our ethno-telephony program, go to

  Buy me a coffee to support posts like this.

  (Or, you know, a house. If you're just like a bored billionaire or something.)

Friday, June 11, 2010

Utopia's scaffolding

Civilization took some important things from us. I think technology is going to give them back.

Bruce Chatwin gave me my first inkling that something about human society had gone horribly wrong.

Chatwin is known as a travel writer, and that is his foremost legacy. But a persistent theme in his writing was that mankind had lost its way when it put down roots and started building cities. You see, for the massive majority of our deep unrecorded history we moved around and scavenged, but nowadays, for plenty good reasons, we tend to find ourselves in one place. One of the results is that our babies cry, out of their desperate need to be rocked, and we shell out the cash for a rocking bassinet. What our miserable infants' genes are crying out for, though, is to be strapped to the backs of their migratory foraging mothers.

In like manner, Chatwin suggested, grown-ups strain themselves to fill their days with the novelty and danger that their moving forbearers had. I, for one, check Hacker News six times a day. Others turn to drugs, gambling, violence, and, in extreme cases, World of Warcraft. But what we all need, Chatwin says, is to take to the road. And maybe to take on a sabertooth tiger from time to time.

Chatwin wasn't alone in thinking civilization is a disease. And he certainly wasn't the first to come to that conclusion (though his was the first book on the subject to find itself in my hands, as a kid). As it turns out, Lao Tsu and Roussea, Thoureau and the infamous Theodore Kaczynski all spoke on the same themes. “Civilization is a disease.” “Man is born free, and yet everywhere he is in chains.”

But civilization, suck though it may, seems to me to have given us more than it's taken. I, for one, wouldn't trade penicillin for tiger fights. But lately I've been wondering if we won't end up having our cake and eating it too. I think there's reason to believe that a lot of what we call civilization is a kind of scaffolding, and that as the edifice of human society nears its completion, we're about to start tearing it down.

To understand the situation we're in, you have to understand the sedentary shift. If that's not a phrase you know, I don't blame you. It's a boring anthropology thing. Suffice it to say that humans evolved for one kind of life, and then started living another. Evolution made us to be hunter-gatherers, but then, all of the sudden, at the end of the last ice age, we created cities and writing and organized religion and politics and farming. By the time it was all said and done, this cocktail of inhumane inventions had been eerily recreated seven times across the globe, independently. That's what we call the sedentary shift.

When digging up bones, one of the ways that archaeologists can tell that a person was sedentary is that they're malnourished. When people walk around hunting squirrels and eating berries, they end up with a pretty healthy diet. When they encase themselves in mud bricks and eat nothing but wheat and oats, not so much. Another way that archaeologists know that people were “civilized” is that in civilized societies we have a few people buried with tons of wealth, while the masses are thrown into their graves quite unadorned. The exact sequence of the development of civilization depends on who you ask, but it goes something like this: agriculture requires organization, organization requires hierarchy and writing and organized religion. Along with these come a whole bunch of other requisites and implications, and by the time the process is through, you end up where we are now. You've also traded 20 hour work weeks for 40 hour work weeks, and your baby screams, and you can't sleep at night, and you buy things in an attempt to feel alive.

What I've said so far isn't news. It's anthro 101. But I think I've stumbled onto something novel, and if you'll trek with me for a few more paragraphs, I think it might could be your sabertooth surrogate for the day.

One of the other ways that archaeologists can identify civilization is gender inequality. In hunter-gatherer societies, men and women tend to be equal. As civilization waxes, the stronger sex tends to enslave the fairer. But wait – look at where we are now: at least in some parts of the sedentary world, women are again doing the same sorts of work as men, and they've been given equal protections under the law. I wouldn't dare say we've recaptured sexual parity quite yet, but I do think that what we've achieved deserves a raised eyebrow. What's happening? Are we becoming de-civilized?

And what of the malnutrition that sets in with the sedentary shift? I still live in a stone enclosure, but I've got all the fruits and squirrel meat I want. Something bizarre is happening. After 10,000 years of civilization, some of our ancient patterns seem to be resurfacing.

So I have a theory. And so do the poets (Sandberg, here):

“Once having marched
Over the margins of animal necessity,
Over the grim line of sheer subsistence
Then man came
To the deeper rituals of his bones . . .”

It seems to me that having secured the advantages of civilization (longer life spans, medicine, wealth), we've set about regaining the treasures that we lost. I don't know how, and I don't know why, but I think I know what we are in for.

If the lost things we yearn for after having taken up civilization are an indicator of what we might steer civilization towards letting us recapture, then I propose that the world is heading towards the following:

(1) Neolocal residence. Our most primitive ancestors preferred to live in nuclear families, but as the complexity of civilization increased, that became more and more difficult to swing, so that more “advanced” civilizations tend to live in extended family or multi-family units. Already, though, in the hyper-individualistic fringes of advanced global civilization (particularly the United States), living alone with your nuclear family has again become the norm.

(2) Fewer menstrual periods. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors, because of their active lifestyle, had their periods about once every three months.Civilization made it happen a lot more. Now that civilization has grown up and borne its technological fruit, we're on our way to reclaiming a more humane pattern of menses.

(3) Less work. People need to work and be useful, but they don't need to slave away for 40-50 hours a week. Humans evolved to work for about 20 hours a week, and I think that as soon as automation and society permit it, we'll get back to that.

(4) Folk Culture. The professionalization of the production of culture is a consequence of the power dynamic inherent in stratified, "civilized" societies. It started in the first civilizations, where scribes were in their own elite castes. Today, still, we have professional novelists, journalists, and musicians who do the job of cultural creation while the rest of us answer calls, wait tables, and make deals. In our natural state, we take part in the creation of art and culture.

(5) Speech, not text. Human beings did not evolve to take in language through the eyes. Writing was made necessary by record keeping, which made use of clay and potsherds to create an artificial memory that exceeded our wet-ware in some ways. Once our artificial memories are really good at handling speech, I think that our emphasis on hearing through the eyes will be de-emphasized, somewhat.

While these are the recoveries I'm bold enough to bet on, I'm bold enough to hope for even more. If civilization continues in this strange era to enable us to return to our natural modes in even more ways, perhaps we will see even stranger atavisms. Given a long time scale I can soberly entertain the notion of the dissolution of hierarchy, or the end of sedentism itself.

Sandberg: "Where to? what next?"

We'll see.

  Buy me a coffee to support posts like this.

  (Or, you know, a house. If you're just like a bored billionaire or something.)