— Cultural Sources of Newness

Glimmers of Cultural Science from John Hartley

John Hartley (Curtin University, Australia and Cardiff University, Wales), currently a visiting fellow in our unit at the WZB, is writing a book with Jason Potts  (a former visiting fellow of ours) on“Cultural Science”. As he points out, it is quite unusual and challenging to write a book about a science that does not yet exist but that needs to be envisioned and realized. In a seminar today John explained that he sees culture as the evolution of meaningfulness, and he gave us glimpses into the work-in-progress on the book. Here I share a few glimmers of those glimpses.


John Hartley explaining "What's New?" January 16 2013, WZB

What is culture for?

Unlike some disciplines, which treat culture as an impediment to innovation (e.g., by focusing on heritage, maintaining old ways of thinking and doing things), cultural science sees culture as “the outcome of cooperative interactions to create both value and meaning.” On a single slide John succeeded in clarifying the value that cultural science can add to our understanding over and above the contributions of other disciplines.

Cultural science provides a systematic approach to the view of culture:

  • not as a suite of sub-optimal behaviours (as in economics),
  • not as a repository of past knowledge (as in anthropology),
  • not as a system of power relations (as in cultural studies),
  • Not backward-looking but forward-looking view of culture.

Culture is viewed instead:

  • as an evolved way of generating and processing newness and novelty under conditions of uncertainty.

John draws on ideas from our unit’s research on cultural sources of newness and observes that “newness comes from an outworking of tensions, frictions, dissonance, ambiguities and problems that eventually reveal new possibilities or opportunities to be seized and exploited to create or extract value.”

Building on our work, another slide summarized 3 kinds of processes that are decisive for innovations:

  • (1) the continuous variation of cultural forms and practices;
  • (2) the evaluation of newness;
  • (3) the states of tension that arise within and between cultures.

Some, but not all the members of our research unit share the systems perspective that John takes. His focus is on systems rather than individuals, so he sees innovation essentially coming from difference between systems, and he states that all the activity takes place in networks.

The book will surprise and provoke some readers. For example, he considers copying to be a driver of innovation, and social learning to be far more than a matter of internalizing norms—rather, he sees it as playful, creative and competitive. Another quite provocative idea in cultural science is that waste is a condition for reproduction. Similar to the natural phenomenon of trees that produce billions of pollen grains in order to ensure their reproduction, social systems also need to produce enormous numbers of ideas from which to choose. He is interested in understanding the processes of selection in systems of plenitude.

If you want to know how “consilience”, “bigification” and “malvoisins” relate to cultural science, you will have to read the book. By the time John and Jason have finished writing it, they will also be able to answer the question with which the presentation ended today:

Is it possible to imagine a ‘creative economy’ based on the networked creativity of the whole population,

  • not just on existing artistic elites, professional designers, and
  • an ‘expert pipeline’ model of copyright-protected creative ‘industries’?

Cultural Science, the book in progress