Research project Cultural evolution in digital societies
This project adopts the novel approach of applying evolutionary analyses to the study of the consequences of Digital Information Technologies (DITs) for individuals and society.
Our central hypothesis is that the emergence of DITs can be seen as a major transition in evolution, comparable to major transitions in evolution that have occurred in the past. Using the theoretical framework and investigative tools developed in the growing field of cultural evolution, and general models of cultural evolution developed previously by project members, this project will chart the consequences of the potential future evolution of DITs on complex social phenomena, and provide a knowledge base for policymakers.
Two kinds of evolutionary analyses will be employed. The first involves developing mathematical models of social networks and cultural transmission in the presence of DITs and running agent-based simulations. This work will adapt evolutionary theory to study the impact of DITs and related technology on society. The second analysis will make comparisons with major evolutionary transitions that have previously occurred, both in biological and cultural evolution. These generally give rise to substantial changes in both information processing and relationships between agents—changes which are also to be expected from DITs. These analyses will be applied to answer the guiding research question: How do digital information technologies transform cultural evolution, and what are the likely effects on individuals and society? We will investigate the impact of DITs both directly through algorithms and indirectly through the actions of human agents. The focus will be on the following three related areas: knowledge and misinformation; polarization and segregation; and social influence and trust. The project is an interdisciplinary research effort bringing together epistemology, evolutionary thinking, psychology, social science and mathematics.