More ideas on the Virtual Cultural Laboratory

These days, after reading the article about the VCL, A Virtual Laboratory for the Study of History and Cultural Dynamics (Juan Luis Suárez and Fernando Sancho, 2011) for our first session of the incipient reading group in the lab, some ideas came to my mind. The article presents a tool in order to help researchers to model and analyze historical processes and cultural dynamics.

The tool defines a model with messages, agents, and behaviours. Very briefly, a message is the most basic unit of information that can be stored or exchanged. There are three types of agents: individuals, mobile members of a social group that can interchange messages among them or adquire a new one; repositories, like individuals but fixed in space; and cultural items, as a way to store an unmutable message to transfer, also immobile. Finally, we find four ways in which agents can behave: reception, memory, learning and emission. Every kind of agent has a different set of behaviours. Cultural items do not receive information and always emit the same message; repositories work as a limited collection of messages, when the repository is full, a message is selected for elimination. And individuals can be Creative, Dominant and Passive, according to the levels they show of attentionality and engagement with the messages. These three simple models provided make the VCL a really versatile cultural simulator. However, as the authors say in the article, VCL is a beta version and could be improved a bit.

I am lucky enough to be able to talk to the authors, and we are having a really interesting discussion about new ways to expand the VCL. On my side, I have been quite influenced by the book La evolución de la cultura (Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, 2007) and the already mentioned before Maps of Time (David Christian, 2011), in such a way that demography and concepts networks have become a very significant factors from my point of view.

The idea is to use graphs to represenet and store the culture of the individuals, and also graphs to represent the different cultures, trying to shift everything a bit to the domain of Graph Theory. We will be able to store the whole universe of concepts  defined through semantic relationships among them. In this scenario, we can figure out a degree pruning to get the diferent connected componentes that represent the cultures, but keeping always the source graph. This prune function could be a measure over the relationships, like for example ‘remove relationships between nodes with this value of betweeness centrality’, or even a randomly way to get connected components. But better if the removed relationships have a sense in terms of semantic.

After we have different graph cultures, we put them all in different places. Then we can get culture sub-graphs and store them in the individiuals in order to give them a cultural feeling of membershipto a certain culture. Sub-graphs form the same culture could overlap each other, but sub-graphs from different cultures should be disjointed. Now, individuals start to move across the world. Also I would introduce the notion of innovations for culture sub-graphs: an innovation is a deciduous concept with no relationships to any concept of the sub-graph, but at least one relationship if we consider the set of relationships of the original graph. Somehow, this implies that everything is already in the world, but it is an interesting assumption to experiment with. Maybe the original graph could be dynamic and get new concepts across time.

So, individuals could show specific behaviours with regard to innovations: Conservative, Conformist and Liberal. And another property to draw the feeling to belong to a group, distinct to the one the individual was born. This value is kind of similar to the permeability to ideas, but different, while permeability works during the whole life of the individual, the membership feeling could operate until it is satisfied, so we can use it as a way to stop individuals, or to define the equilibrium.

Well, these are just ideas. Another approach could be to use population pyramids as inputs for the simulation. Yes, it’s me and demography again. If we do this, given a culture and a number of individuals that changes across time thanks to the population pyramid, we could see, and this is the point, how concepts move through cultures, and even more important, what is the culture of the individuals when the simulation stops. Calculating this is as easy as checking what sub-graphs are a sub-set of the existing cultures. This idea of using a populational pyramid seems interesting to me because allows to analyze the importance of the lost of permeability of the indivoduals to innovations. Therefore, we could find what the elements are of the vertical cultural transmission, traditional, familiar, and ritual; in opposition to the horizonatal transmission (does not imply kinship but relations between individuals).

And one more idea! This one the craziest, I think. We could use a biology-inspired model for the concepts, so a concept would be defined by a vector that quantifies it using previously established knowledge fields. For instance, let’s say that an idea, i, is formed by a 20% of Literature, a 20% of Physics, and a 0% of Biology, so the resulting vector will be i = [20, 20, 0]. Also, ideas are related to each other through a graph. Following this biological analogy, we could set the vector to have 23 pairs of values, in such a way that allows individuals adopt new ideas and modify them according to random changes in the last pair of values… or maybe this is too much craziness. Let’s see!

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