Rhetorics of Information: The Dream of Reverse Engineering Nature and Culture

One of the great informational puzzles is how physical signals, transduced by the nervous system, give rise to high-level, semantic information.

                                      --Luciano Floridi (2010, p. 86)

What we call the past is built on bits.

                                       --John Wheeler (in Gleick, 2011, frnt.) 

May I describe for you a dream?  It’s the dream of identifying a functional unit of information in studies of culture that's akin to the gene in biology.  

Is such an effort desirable?  Is it realistic?  Many will say “no” and “no” for a number of reasons.  Roughly speaking, many of these protests will come from people in the humanities and to some extent the social sciences.  

Yet, defining units of information, organizing them, and understanding how they operate is to some extent, it could be argued, the entire effort of the sciences and provides a primary underpinning for inter- and trans-disciplinary research.  Phenomena are reduced to simple abstractions – e.g., e=mc2 – in order to enhance the explanatory power and utility of practical applications.  

These reductions need not wipe out reality at a human scale unless we humans allow them to.  Under scientific reductionism, smaller units of information are not “more real” and do not “replace” phenomena at “higher” or more complex levels of organization.  Rather, as multiple building blocks come together, the result becomes “more than the sum of its parts” – that is, more complex phenomena emerge (see Waldrop, 1992).  

So, some say, as the discovery of genes and how they operate have radically progressed our understanding of life, so too could an identification of informational units in human culture. 

For many, Richard Dawkins’s (1976) idea of the “meme” comes immediately to mind in this context, which was deliberately conceived as an analogy to a gene.  The story of the discovery of the building blocks of life is a very powerful and highly romantic one in the sciences, no less so because it is mostly true.[1]  For those who dream of such a discovery – or invention – of a similarly powerful explanatory concept for studies of human culture, the possibility of such a story in the subject matter of the social sciences and possibly even the humanities remains highly alluring.  

Meanwhile among skeptics and naysayers of such a dream, hopefuls also look back to the intellectual climate prior to the arrival of the gene as an identifiable, functional entity.  As Gunther Stent describes, the realization about what genes are and how they operate “seemed so radical” at the time that even those making discoveries “were reluctant to accept” what was found until rigorously tested (1980, cf. p. xiv).  Are we in the midst of an analogous moment for units of cultural information?

This project explores this question particularly in terms of the history, possibilities, and pitfalls of such a dream.


[1] While novices in biology like myself and even most scientists probably think of a “gene” as a highly stable concept, it remains somewhat contested and as a term functions in various ways among biologists (Godfrey-Smith, 2007, p. 103; see also Griffiths & Stotz, 2007, p. 85ff.).