Consciousness & Culture

I will start by saying that this is an exploratory essay about collective experiences. The idea of collective consciousness is intuitively appealing. We live in a world where much of what we understand reality to be is shared with other people. We think, act and experience a world with other people, a world in which we share ideas about how we have fun, what we should do with our lives and how we should do those things.

Emile Durkheim believed there are shared patterns of behavior that go beyond our everyday rituals (like going to the supermarket); behaviors that for one society or another be explained through a shared system of concepts. Suicide rates and reasons for example for Durkheim point toward a collective background of ideas from which we draw from as we act out our lives. That background he dubbed a ‘Collective Consciousness’.

To take suicide as an example, in some societies it is ritualistic, an act of honor. In others however, suicide is individualistic as opposed to ‘for the group or collective’ or for moral principle (as in the case of martyrdom). Psychological explanations aside, Durkheim believed that societies mores in part explain why we will act in a certain way, they are the backdrop of reason for the thoughts and actions that guide us. To back this up he compares sets of values to rates of suicide and compares these, where he could, with available data that pointed to cause.

For Durkheim this was evidence to suppose a collective consciousness. A background system that connects the members of a society. It were as if a group of people in a room, all believing they were experiencing that room could be said to be having the same collective experience. For him this was a backbone for the experiences we have at a social level. Evidence that there is a phenomena of study, sociology, that deals with the collective fabric of human experience.

It is an appealing idea and there is no lack of evidence to support the concept that on social and anthropological levels there are regularities, not just of practice but, thought and therefore action. The social framework with the individual as a part can, in that sense be thought of as an extended and organic whole. It can explain art, etiquette and our reactions and dispositions towards these things. In some sense Foucault’s own ideas, especially with respect to the changing attitudes toward madness share the feature of social historicity toward cultural and social practice.

Other Factors

These reflections however, can also be true, not just of the state of a culture as an abstraction within which we are both part of and influenced by but, the topography, history and economics of any society. Of course Durkheim does refer to institutions as law courts as examples of our cultural consciousness. However, how these kinds of institution play into the emergence of new conceptual structures and how we interact with them reciprocally is not described by him. Hegel does deal with the concept of reciprocity between individuals and what he calls corporations (larger groups) when he discusses dialectics. However, these are all still philosophical abstractions. Writers such as Kunstler on the other hand talk about relationships between the development of a place as a physical and lived space  and the consequent ways in which we live and experience our surroundings. Surroundings whose structures then govern our ways of life.

For example, the width of a street, regulations on building, the number of roads and cars versus public forms of transport as well as the prevalence of social spaces such as parks for Kunstler are causes of the state of a place in which we live. They have a direct impact on how much joy a place can bring and with that joy, freedom. Shopping malls for Kunstler are an interesting example of a social evil. We are free to roam around them but, they are not a space in which we can have our own ideas and collectively express them. This is an example, not so much of how a society driven only by acquisition can be judged but, more of how the physical shape of a space can also act to shape the collective sense in which we experience the world.

Arguments like his are based on consequence; how the a priori interests of economics create the spaces in which we live. His arguments however, are not about how we, as social and cultural entities co-existent experientially. Arguments like his however, cannot be taken entirely as separate from those such as Durkheim’s. Like Foucault and Hegel they form a set of ideas about the role of context on our experiences and attitudes as human beings living in a place.


One just has to think about how technology has changed the way in which we live to appreciate how quickly context and with it life can change. The life of work, the mobility of people who work as well as our ability to get and communicate information has rapidly changed the way that we live. Clay Shirky represents the change well but, he’s not the only one. Companies, countries and individuals have not only become more transparent (seemingly) but, they are certainly expected to be able to respond much more quickly to change.

Our concept of possibility have changed immeasurably. That is not to mention our hopes for how technology in the future will impact our lives and abilities further. Technology is an expectation (much like asking someone where we can find them on Facebook and the shock we experience when we find out that they’ve opted out of using social media altogether.) Technology however, is as susceptible to our own readiness culturally as our attitudes towards our own behaviors.

Innovation in technology is very much the same. The innovations that we experience can’t be considered ONLY a consequence of the state of technology itself. Understanding the use of the technologies that permeate our society are as much a part of what we consider innovative. We need to find a relatable place for a technology before we can make much sense of it. One only need consider how quickly and well Google Glass, Wireless Roads, Broadband Everywhere, RFID tags not to mention the telephone and Yelp in different parts of the world have permeated our daily lives at vastly different rates. If we consider the all of the technologies available today I am sure only a small fraction are part of our daily lives. Furthermore their uses differ vastly.

To some extent this is not just because we don’t know how to incorporate technologies, it’s also true that there are other factors, business, which needs to decide on the rules for how technology’s use can be monetized is one factor. Having services that synchronize our activities, from home to car and then to office and only require one identity is not technically challenging. However, people own and make money from those services. Medical records are only now (slowly) moving in the direction of being simpler for the user but, still, the context is the context. Another factor is understanding how best to use a technology. A rather nice example of how we respond to technology comes from observations about how manners adapt to new ways in which we can access each other.

The important point however, is that of readiness. One of the big lessons of the last few years in the world of UX has certainly been to understand the context of use of an application. Designing technology applications is a bit like fashion design in that sense. Boundaries are there to be pushed but, only as far as people are willing to accept and use what they get from that change. Innovation is a cultural phenomenon, good innovation is like good art, it says something to the people at the time, not before but, hopefully after.

The Culture of Happiness

Similarly with culture, our experiences of happiness seem to be measurable, not just at an individual level but, equally at national and demographic levels as well, the Happy Planet Index is an example of this. Reports and indices of national happiness scales have become commonplace. Recovery or relapse rates for various pathologies (including criminality) as facets of how and where we live are part of folk lore; to the extent that we can plan where we live by looking at maps of crime rates.

These facts in and of themselves are interesting but, raise them up a level and an analogy can be made with the temperament of place and of a time. It is question begging; are we individually responsible for the sum total of our happiness? It question begs further if the answer is no for then one may ask; what structural properties of place are responsible for our shared experiences? Furthermore; do these phenomena qualify as evidence of a social or cultural consciousness, maybe of the Jungian variety?

I do believe that culture is a backdrop. Experience, in as much as it speaks to history or even historicity as an experiential quality has cultural overtones that change with time, social events and wider social relations moment to moment. But, it would be hard to argue from that to the supposition that there is a cultural backdrop of joined and cohesive experience. A Consciousness proper so to speak.

Set Membership

There is ample literature that asks the question; “what does it mean for a system to have experience?” The entire literature around ‘The Chinese Room Argument‘ or ‘The Chinese Nation‘  thought experiments are cases in point. But, whichever side of the coin one falls, be they systems replies or robot replies a common response is that the systems just aren’t joined up enough. However, the system as a whole can also be thought of as a set, a set that interacts with its members and whose members have relations with each other.

Mereology offers some of an answer.  The relationships between entities in a set form a basis for understanding the relationships between those parts of the set and  the structure of the set itself. This allows us to think about the relationship between an individual as a proper part of a larger group (that is his or her culture). In this way we could formalize the description of a person as a part of a whole for which he is a member, their interactions and the consequence of those interactions with the whole.

Considering culture as an object of membership then it stands to reason that we share cultural properties with some culture or society of which we are a part. Given that assumption, then as free as we may be as agents on the surface we are also agents of that culture, parts of its total structure. The implications of this, as obvious as the idea may seem are far more surprising than the idea itself. The point being however, that we are acting agents within a larger structure that determines us to some (as yet undefined) degree.

Implied is the idea that whatever we do we are limited entirely by our context of membership to some society. Rationally this may be hard to stomach. We certainly feel like free agents most of the time and the moral implications are profound, for one it implies a degree more ownership from our governments when it comes to our wellbeing. Morality aside, when we consider it means to move within a society or culture the story then we can explain attitude as a collective phenomenon.

Consider the following examples:

  • Van Gogh only sold one painting
  • Molière’s plays were ill received in France
  • I cannot get the job because I don’t look the part
  • Women could not run for office because they were women

In each case the consequence is not a cause of the quality of the actor (if hindsight is indeed 20/20), it is because of the context in which the actor acted. If we think about culture in this context as being a set that defines the rules of action (and reception of the product of one’s work) it seems clear that culture places a boundary around what can and cannot be considered receivable.

Joined Experiences

For me the structural role of a culture in deciding what is and what isn’t a part of its collective identity is appealing. However, the order of magnitude just seems to be too great to argue from that we then have a collective level of consciousness. The problem is the level of integration between the many minds that compose  society is just too low to then suggest that we, as members of this one society are jointly conscious. An appeal to entropy as it is defined in the information sciences is only one version of why these kinds of suggestion fail. Consciousness is a state of information in some mind and entropy is the measure of information that we have. If we applied a measure of entropy in this sense to a nation we would likely find the analog of white noise. And that’s not to mention how porous one culture and society is with another.

Similarly Tononi in his Integrated Information Theory argues that for something to be conscious that thing’s information must be more integrated, entirely at the expense of all the other information around you. It might appear at a macro level that a society acts as a whole. However, that would be an illusion not dissimilar to suggesting that a ruler really does have a straight line (once we put a microscope to its edges.) There is not enough coherence at the level of social or cultural phenomena to say clearly that there is a separate level of experience that is cultural, we can only say at best that we share in cultural experiences. But, in saying that we must of course be careful about what we mean.

Joined experiences are more like sharing in a context. A bit like going to a sports match. We all sit at different angles on the stadium and as a result see different aspects of the game. But, we certainly don’t have ‘the same’ experience of the game. Not without a Vulcan mind meld during the course of the game at least.

But, this does open space for another way of looking culture. That is as a structural entity, one whose features give us information about the world and our place in it. Additionally there is no reason to suppose (in fact this entire essay argues against the idea) that the structure is by any means static. If anything it has properties that are emergent and have reciprocal relations with its parts. Not unlike an organism that responds to the molecular composition inside it as it moves around its petri dish.

For a continued essay on the same theme my essay Implicit and Explicit Communication would be a good next step.


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