This is a post by Pablo Fernández Velasco (ENS), a speaker from our Spring 2021 Seminar Series. If you would like to attend a seminar, please sign up using this link. You can also download the full schedule here.
Let us consider the following idea: cultural practices increase predictability. Take queuing, for instance. You arrive at the supermarket. As is often the case nowadays, they are only letting people come in one by one, so a queue has formed outside. If instead of a queue there had been a crowd of people in disarray waiting to get in based on remembered order of arrival, you’d have to ask who’s last, and it’d be rather hard to tell how long you’d have to wait before getting in. Because there is a queue, you just take the last place in line, and you quickly get a sense of how quickly the line advances. You can also see the order of each person in the queue, who is first, who is second, etc. In other words, thanks to this particular cultural practice (queuing) you are able to predict more accurately both the order of arrival of the people in the queue and the pace at which the queue advances. This is the sense in which cultural practices are said to increase predictability, or, equivalently, to reduce entropy.
Queuing is only one example among many. Here is a reduced list of ways in which cultural practices might reduce entropy[i]:
- filtering — preserving some features or elements while ignoring others (e.g. directing our attention to the white lines painted at the edge of a mountain road),
- constraint satisfaction — the simultaneous fulfilment of multiple restrictions that change the probability of different configurations of cultural practices emerging (e.g. when cycling there is a simultaneous fulfilment of the constraints of the human body, the mechanics of the bike and a rich legal and cultural code, which makes certain ways of cycling more likely to emerge),
- modulated positive feedback — recycling a (filtered) subset of the output as an input (e.g. decreasing speed when our car gets dangerously close to the white line at the edge of the road),
- superposition of structure — the projection of imagined structure onto elements of a perceived or imagined world (e.g. seeing a constellation when looking at the stars).
- mapping across conceptual spaces — combining filtering with constraint satisfaction and superposition in order to map patterns from one conceptual space to another (e.g. translations, comparisons, analogies, metaphors…),
- design — activities outside the normal workflow that attempt to create explicit representations of work practices (e.g. agreeing on a chain of command within an organisation).
The idea that cultural practices increase predictability seems to sit rather well with a new framework in the cognitive sciences that defends that prediction is the fundamental activity of the human mind[ii]. In a nutshell: according to this framework (called Predictive Processing) the brain generates predictions about incoming sensory input and updates those predictions based on prediction error. That is, when a prediction is inaccurate, new predictions try to account for the error. The overarching goal of the organism is minimizing this prediction error over time. The organism advances towards this goal both by updating its predictions and by changing the world through action to fulfil predictions.
Unfortunately, there are cultural practices that do not seem to reduce entropy. Rather, they seem to do the exact opposite of that. From playing hot potato to angry protests and from rave dancing to Cartesian doubt, humans are seen to engage in many cultural practices that tend to increase entropy, that is, to decrease predictability. This is a problem to the view just introduced above. First off, because it goes against the claim that cultural practices reduce entropy. Second, because it seems baffling, to say the least, to think that the overarching goal of the human brain is to minimise prediction error when there are many human activities that are actively trying to decrease predictability.
In my forthcoming talk, I will delve deeper into this problem and propose the following conjecture as a way out: cultural practices do decrease entropy, but they do so over time. Games that at first seem to increase entropy turn out to enable learning so as to decrease entropy in the long run. And disruptive practices are actually trying to unsettle existing cultural practices that might be sub-optimal, hence creating much-needed space for new cultural practices to arise that can do a better job at reducing entropy. That is the gist of my proposal. The devil, of course, is in the detail. If you want to see how entropic cultural practices and the predictive brain fit together through ever-complex patterns of order and disorder, you’ll have to come to the talk.
About the Author
Pablo Fernández is pursuing his research on the phenomenology of disorientation at Institut Jean Nicod (ENS, EHESS, CNRS), and he is a visitor at the Spatial Cognition Lab of University College London. The focus of his work is on how space structures human experience. He specialises in spatial cognition and in phenomenology. He follows an interdisciplinary approach, actively collaborating with neuroscientists, architects, geographers and anthropologists.
[i] Hutchins, E. (2010). Cognitive ecology. Topics in Cognitive Science, 2(4), 705–715.
[ii] Clark, A. (2016). Surfing Uncertainty: Prediction, Action, and the Embodied Mind. Oxford University Press, USA.